G. W. Pabst

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Thomas Elsaesser (essay date July 1983)

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SOURCE: Elsaesser, Thomas. “Lulu and the Meter Man: Louise Brooks, Pabst, and ‘Pandora's Box’.” Screen 24, no. 4 (July 1983): 4-36.

[In the following essay, Elsaesser explores Weimar culture's response to Pandora's Box and to the American actress Louise Brooks starring in the film.]


For several decades, G. W. Pabst's film, Die Büchse der Pandora/Pandora's Box (1928-29) was practically unavailable, except as one of the very special treasures of Henri Langlois' Cinemathèque in Paris. The star of the film, Louise Brooks, an actress from Wichita, Kansas, was to have one of the most enigmatic careers in film history. After the release of the two films she made with Pabst (the other one is Tagebuch einer Verlorenen/The Diary of a Lost Girl, 1929) she became a Paris cult figure in 1930, but on returning to Hollywood she virtually ceased appearing in films, and literally became a ‘lost one’. Langlois' infatuation with Louise Brooks made him feature a huge blow-up of her face—by then barely recognised by anyone—at the entrance of his 1955 ‘Sixty Years of Cinema’ exhibition:

Those who have seen her can never forget her. She is the modern actress par excellence because, like the statues of antiquity, she is outside of time … She is the intelligence of the cinematographic process, she is the most perfect incarnation of photogenie; she embodies in herself all that the cinema rediscovered in its last years of silence: complete naturalness and complete simplicity.1

Among those who could never forget Louise Brooks after Langlois' screenings of her films were Jean-Luc Godard (paying homage to Lulu in Vivre Sa Vie, 19622), and James Card, curator of Film at the George Eastman House, Rochester. He went in search of Louise Brooks in New York, found her in almost squalid circumstances, and brought her to live in Rochester, on a small Eastman House stipend. While he encouraged her to write and take an interest in her own past, he also tracked down and restored Pandora's Box, so that we now possess the image of Louise Brooks in this film as it had been seen by her first audience.

Pandora's Box was not a commercial success, and in the United States, for instance, only a cut and censored version3 was briefly in circulation, at a time when the new phenomenon of the talkies eclipsed and consigned to oblivion many of the more outstandingly modern films of the last silent period. In Germany, the film was widely shown and discussed, but Pabst was attacked on several fronts. Even his most consistent supporter, Harry M Potamkin, was disappointed and found the film ‘atmosphere without content’4. About Louise Brook's performance a Berlin critic wrote: ‘Louise Brooks cannot act. She does not suffer, she does nothing.’5

A good deal of criticism tried to prove Pabst's shortcomings as an adaptor of Wedekind's plays, and complained about the film industry's general temerity of turning a literary classic into a silent film with nothing but laconic intertitles.

Lulu is inconceivable without the words that Wedekind makes her speak. These eternally passion-laden, eruptive, indiscriminating, hard, sentimental and unaffected words stand out clearly against her figure. … The film is unable to reproduce the discrepancy between Lulu's outward appearance, and her utterance.6

This assessment is contradicted by Siegfried Kracauer, who writes in his book From Caligari to Hitler:

A failure it was, but not for the reason most critics advanced. … The film's weakness resulted not so much from the impossibility of translating (the) dialogue into cinematic terms, as...

(This entire section contains 15749 words.)

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from the abstract nature of the whole Wedekind play. … Pabst blundered in choosing a play that because of its expressive mood belonged to the fantastic postwar era rather than to the realistic stabilising period.7

The almost unanimously unfavourable response to the film is interesting in several respects. Even if we can assume special pleading on the part of the literary establishment, busy safeguarding its own territory8, the various complaints outline an ideologically and aesthetically coherent position. It goes right to the heart of the film's special interest within Weimar attitudes to sexuality, class and the representation of women in literature and the visual arts. For the passages quoted are indicative of a resistance that, on the one hand, has to do with the difference between literary language and body language (‘utterance’/‘appearance’)—reminiscent of more recent discussions in the area of sexual difference between speaking and being spoken as a subject in language. On the other hand, there is an evident irritation that Louise Brooks is neither active (‘she does nothing’), nor actively passive (‘she does not suffer’) which contrasts unfavourably one kind of body—that of cinematic representation—with another, the expressive body of the theatre performance. Compare this to Langlois' ‘(her) art is so pure that it becomes invisible’: praise that implies a diametrically opposite visual (and literary) aesthetic.

Pabst's choice of an American actress for the part caused consternation among German film-stars. It gives the issue a further dimension if one considers it within the large-scale emigration of German film-makers to Hollywood, the economic difficulties of the German film industry after the 1927 crash and especially UFA and Nero's bid to break into the American market. But ideological attitudes towards America also played their part. Louise Brooks recalls a telling incident:

As we left the theatre (at the opening of an UFA film, at the Gloria Palast, and Pabst) hurried me through a crowd of hostile moviegoers, I heard a girl saying something loud and nasty. In the cab, I began pounding his knee, insisting, ‘What did she say? What did she say?’ Finally, he translated: ‘That is the American girl who is playing our German Lulu’.9

Kracauer's comments rather simplify this whole ideological and aesthetic complex, with his implied juxtaposition of Expressionism and the Neue Sachlichkeit (‘New Objectivity’), but as so often, he has recognised a crucial tension in the film—even if, calling Pabst's choice of subject a blunder, he overlooks the extent to which the film actually reinterprets the inner relationship between Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit, since this ‘American’ Lulu gives Pabst a vantage point on both Expressionism and the Neue Sachlichkeit, as well as on the fundamental shift that the cinema (compared to the theatre) has brought to the representation of sex and class, libidinal and political economy.


When one wants to understand the place of the cinema in Weimar society and culture, Kracauer's work is still essential reading, even though it appears different now from the book it was when first published in 1946. Historians of Weimar culture consider the cinema as part of what makes Weimar Weimar, but they are certainly far from giving it the privileged status that Kracauer allows it, that of unlocking the Zeitgeist, the ever-elusive essence of an epoch. John Willett gives an apt summary in The New Sobriety:

There are existing studies that deal with the culture of the Weimar Republic between 1918-1933 much more broadly. ‘When we think of Weimar’, writes Peter Gay in the preface to his Weimar Culture, ‘we think of the Three-penny Opera,The Cabinet of Dr Caligari,The Magic Mountain, the Bauhaus, Marlene Dietrich.’ More recently, that other eminent historian Walter Laqueur has defined its Zeitgeist in very similar terms as ‘the Bauhaus, The Magic Mountain, Professor Heidegger and Dr Caligari’.10

Laqueur, however, had added a proviso:

The fact that Marlene Dietrich has not been forgotten in 1974, while many of her contemporaries have faded from memory, need not necessarily mean that future historians of the cinema will have to share the preferences and prejudices of our time.11

I take this as an invitation to talk about Lulu, rather than Lola Lola.

The cinema is part of the colourful mosaic of the Zeitgeist, providing an easily recognisable iconography, the period flavour, or—again in John Willett's words—important mainly for its ‘atmospheric, essentially nostalgic relevance’12. Such is the general view, and it implies an idea of cultural diametrically opposed to that of Kracauer, for whom the cinema was not an addition, among the many forms of entertainment that flourished (Laqueur's account of Weimar cinema is the last part of a chapter called ‘Berlin s'amuse’) but its hidden centre. A period thinks, compul-represents and interprets itself—and its contradictions—in all the products of its social life, and among the means of self-representation, the cinema had for Kracauer an absolutely preeminent function. In this respect, Kracauer had already applied the lessons of structural analysis and social anthropology, and as Adorno put it: ‘his way of considering the cinema (as a cipher of social tendencies) has long since become common property, so much so that it is practically an unquestioned assumption underlying any serious reflection on the medium in general.’13

No fundamentally new or different history of the Weimar cinema has thus appeared since Kracauer's socio-psychological study of the ‘secret history involving the inner dispositions of the German people’14. And this despite the fact that in the field of economic film history particularly, and also textual criticism, many new perspectives have been opened up. The general impact has been that in the intervening time, scholars have become more careful in specifying who—that is, what class, what group—represented itself or was addressed, when ‘going to the movies’ became a regular habit. A somewhat different understanding of the nature and origin of German fascism has also made it less urgent to read ‘(the) disclosure of these dispositions through the medium of the German screen’ primarily as a ‘help in the understanding of Hitler's ascent and ascendancy’.15

Today, Kracauer is the historian of the social and sexual imaginary—the structures of anxiety, desire and denegation—that constituted the identity of the German lower middle class. They made up the bulk of the cinema-goers at the Gloria Palast and all the other high-street movie-palaces in Berlin and other German cities. What his book attempts, in a language that borrows some of its key analytical terms from Freudian and Adlerian psychoanalysis—regression, hysteria, impotence, compulsion, sublimation, instinct—is a metaphoric description of a dominant personality-type, whose characteristics are that he is male, paranoiac and masochistic, with repressed homosexual objects of identification. He experiences class barriers as insurmountable, and upward mobility a desire tantamount to parricide, punishable by social déclassement, a fate that, like the sword of Damocles, hangs over his head in any case. Kracauer offers a number of reasons why this class and its dominant character-type is representative for ‘the German people’ generally, and why it is reasonable to assume this to be the target audience of the films:

In a study published in 1930 (Die Angestellten) I pointed out the pronounced ‘white collar’ pretensions of the bulk of German employees, whose economic and social status in reality bordered on that of the workers, or was even inferior to it. Although these lower middle-class people could no longer hope for bourgeois security, they scorned all doctrines and ideals more in harmony with their plight, maintaining attitudes that had lost any basis in reality.16

Kracauer's emphasis on personality-structure and psychoanalysis implies a double thesis: firstly, that political and economic life have a shaping effect on the ‘logic’ of psychic development, and secondly, that cinematic fictional narrative is a particularly efficient way of crystallising dispositions into attitudes. The two theses have a separate theoretical status, as recent debates make only too clear.17 Or, one can interpret the implications as a feminist as done:

From Caligari to Hitler consistently and repetitiously depicts … a national, middle-class, Oedipal/familial failure peculiar to Germany and its cinema. … Beneath its sociological pretense is a perverse discourse on sexuality. … (The) argument places the blame on the domestic family, or historically, patriarchy …, a massive failure of the family to properly inscribe males into the symbolic of paternal order.18

That definitions of masculinity and male identity were in crisis during the Weimar years is not especially new: Peter Gay more or less built the thesis of his book around the father-son conflicts of Expressionist literature and drama. When Walter Laqueur says the opposite about the cinema (‘one looks in vain, among German films, for the father-son conflict so prominent on the stage’) he indicates either a very literal understanding of the motif, or that he has not looked very far, even in Kracauer. Current studies about ‘male fantasies’ in the literary and semi-literary products of the time, have continued to explore the manifestations of male paranoia and repressed homosexuality.19

But what Kracauer also argues is that the depictions of Oedipal conflicts and their modes of narrative resolution in the films are so paranoid and perverse because they are a ‘screen’, a field of projection and a compensation for objectively insoluble political contradictions and immovable class barriers. Sexuality—always an overdetermined cultural code—becomes the site for the representation of highly ambiguous fears (ambiguous, because libidinally charged) about any social existence outside the bourgeois order, outside the law, outside the hierarchical markers of identity and difference recognised by the middle class. This is not to say that the representation of sexual conflict, or the many family tragedies in the Weimar cinema simply substitute themselves for the ‘real’ tragedy of class conflict and economic ruin. Such a view would imply an almost trivial understanding of the Freudian notion of the unconscious, and a serious confusion of levels. The bourgeois film of the Weimar period does indeed have a narrative structure whose symbolic code remains remarkably constant throughout the '20s: it is Kracauer's achievement to have pointed this out. But it does not follow from this that the class conflicts of the period are structured in strict analogy to the stages of the Oedipal conflict. If the various revolutions on the Left failed, it is not because its militants were held back by castration anxiety. However, it is quite another matter if in the fictional and ideological discourses of the period, sexuality and the family become symbolic sites for the construction of political ideology.

To give a historical example. In 1925 the Austrian newspaper editor and writer, Hugo Bettauer, author of Die Freudlose Gasse (The Street of Sorrow, adapted by GW Pabst, and filmed the same year) was assassinated in Vienna. He had been the popular editor of Bettauers Wochenschrift, a journal of progressive social views advocating free love. He was also a Jew. His assassin, a 20-year-old, unemployed, first-generation immigrant from Czechoslovakia, had proven connections with the Austrian Nazi Party and was an avid reader of millenarian political tracts. The trial, which incidentally acquitted him, was entirely preoccupied with the question of whether Bettauer's journal was pornographic and morally corrupting. The young man claimed that it was, and that he had acted spontaneously, out of moral outrage. The jury essentially accepted his plea. What seems interesting in the case is that in a social climate rife with class, ethnic, and party-political conflict and close to civil war, sexuality is the preferred field on which ideological conflict and difference can legitimate itself, to the point of justifying politically and ethnically motivated assassination. Otto Rothstock did not kill in Bettauer the symbolic father, but he did find in sexual outrage a subject position that sufficiently unified the contradictions of his social existence (non-integrated minority, unemployment, ambitions towards gentility) in order for him to act in what seemed to him a politically meaningful way. On his side, Hugo Bettauer, a sex-and-crime formula novelist, found in the sexological articles he published a lucrative market among the semi-literary bourgeoisie for his socially progressive views. For him, too, sexuality implied a political and moral position. The assassin supported his confused political aspirations by modelling himself on particularly rigid conceptions of sexuality and sexual difference. The victim, on the other hand, supported different though perhaps also vague and indeterminate political goals and views with an inverse, open, ‘free’ conception of sexuality and individual identity.

To what extent then, one might want to ask, did the very existence of Freudian psychoanalysis and the many sexological investigations that emerged in its shadow and vicinity give the question of sexuality a different social space? Did they reinforce, or on the contrary, limit the kind of metaphoric haemorrhage that makes the period's ideologies of race, of power and authority, of State and the Law, of the Soul and the Will, seem to us so many versions of the same ‘perverse discourse on sexuality? An intense curiosity focused on Woman is undeniable, but it antedates the Weimar period. Freud's hesitations, and his cautious remarks about the ‘dark continent’ of female sexuality were not always heeded by his followers: definitions of the ‘nature’ of Woman proliferated, precisely because in search of an elusive essence, femininity was so often construed in the negative or oppositional image of a masculinity in crisis. Structurally related to the endless father-son conflicts, where male sexuality appears in its most classically Oedipal fixations, and where women are either terrified bystanders or non-existent, one finds in Weimar culture also the sexually predatory and aggressive woman—phallic mothers, on whom the male subject projects both castration anxieties and masochistic fantasies. But there is a third possibility—and this one seems to me relevant for Pandora's Box—rarely in evidence in either the avant-garde or the ‘serious literature’ of the time and nonetheless perhaps the single most striking characteristic of its popular culture: sexual ambiguity, androgyny, the play with sexual roles and the fascination attached to the realm between male and female—Isherwood's Berlin, if you like, but also Magnus Hirschfeld's research institute. Yet it documents itself most vividly in the cabarets and the variety-shows, the fashion pages or the photography and drawings in quality magazines for a popular audience, like Die Dame. Pabst's Lulu—this is the question—is she the demonic female or a Weimar flapper?


The figure of Lulu that Wedekind portrays in Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora20 superficially belongs to the tradition of the femme fatale, the sexually alluring but remote woman, through whom men experience the irrational, obsessional and ultimately destructive force of female sexuality. The social and historical dimension of the figure is too complex to be discussed here, but many of the literary or visual embodiments, especially in the late nineteenth century, project onto the desired woman an aggressiveness and destructiveness whose subjective correlative is guilt and self-punishment: for transgression, for violation, perhaps for desire itself. In Baudelaire, Huysmans, Gustave Moreau this figure is a stylisation and a character often from mythology (Salomé, Judith, the feminised Sphinx) whose location in the Orient and among the spoils of colonial wars or conquests gives a glimpse of a specifically political source of desire and guilt. In Strindberg, Munch or Klimt the figure is more a reminder of the violations of nature and instinctual life by the ascending bourgeois society and its consolidation of the family. With Wedekind, a specific social milieu, marked by class division, comes into view.

More explicitly than anyone else, he locates the question of sexuality within an ideological field. The repression of almost all manifestations of female sexuality entails an intense eroticism suffusing everything that is a-social, primitive, instinctual, according to a topos that sees nature as devouring whenever its nurturing function has been perverted. At the same time, Wedekind saw very precisely the relationship between social productivity and sexual productivity that the bourgeoisie had fought so hard to establish, and which lay at the heart of its ‘sexual repression’: it was the energy that had to be subjected to the labour-process, regulated and accounted for. The bourgeois subject, for whom sexual passion is nothing but the reverse of all the frustrations that make up his social and moral existence, is contrasted with the members of the lumpenproletariat—those outside, unassimilable or scornful when it comes to the bourgeois' dialectic of renunciation and productivity.

By locating a deviant, instinctual and liberating social behaviour among circus people, artistes, petty criminals, and calling it sexual passion, Wedekind builds a fragile bridge with another class that also felt itself outside the bourgeois order, the declining aristocracy against whose notions of libertinage, of productivity and non-production, of waste and display, the codes of the bourgeoisie once developed themselves. A non-repressive sexuality thus becomes the utopia where the lumpen-class and the aristocracy meet in mutual tolerance and indulgence: the cliché situation of so many Viennese operettas and popular literature fantasies, the ones that served film directors from Stroheim to Ophuls.

This kind of identification cannot maintain itself other than as a projection that also invests the ‘other’ with the attributes that the self lacks. The attraction of the bourgeois for the lumpenproletariat, however, arises not from the similarity of position vis-à-vis a common antagonist, but out of an opposition. Wedekind's Lulu is without family ties, without social obligations, without education or culture. Her psychological existence is free of guilt and conscience, her physical existence the very image of beauty, youth and health. Being outside the social order, she belongs to ‘nature’—the only non-social realm that the plays can envisage. Sexuality therefore constructs itself primarily through negative categories, where non-family equals amorality, and the non-social becomes the ‘wild’ on the animal level, or the tropical plant in the vegetal realm. Several layers of self-projection are superimposed, yet it is the sympathy of the aristocrat for the lumpen (one outcast for another) that provides the basis for the glamourisation of these negative, somewhat demonic categories.

To leave it at this, is to suggest a very schematic reading of the plays. Wedekind's Lulu is in a sense not only a more radical critique of bourgeois notions of sexuality, but also of the myth of the femme fatale itself. By critique I do not mean a denunciation or a persuasively argued case for or against. For Wedekind, Lulu is a construct, not a sociological portrait: she represents in all her manipulative deviousness the only constant value, set against the relativity and dissolution of the so-called absolute and transcendental values. This, one suspects, is also because Wedekind endows her with a kind of articulacy and energy that makes her the next-of-kin of another outcast altogether: the artist, traitor to his class—whether aristocratic or bourgeois. She voices not only the artist's disgust with the members of all classes, but with himself, which is why her predatory lust is allowed to vent itself against members of all constituted classes and convictions.21 Wedekind's notion of female sexuality is thus even more abstract and conceptual than that of the French decadents. As the guise that the artist gives himself, she is distant and alluring, devouring and irresistible. As a woman, she remains terra incognita. For Wedekind, the conflict between class and productivity, between class and sexuality resolves itself only through the intermediary of art, and of an art that understood its own productivity as a form of elemental, natural expressivity. Lulu is characterised by her expressivity, because she is conceived in response to a societal repressivity.22

The space where such an expressivity could articulate itself is the theatre. Voice and gesture, thought and body could be unified in the performance and thus represent what one might call an image of non-alienated existence, the enactment of ‘destiny as pure present’,23 even if Wedekind is careful to relativise the tragic pathos of his figure by such ‘epic’ devices as the prologue, the ringmaster and the animal imagery of the circus, as well as stating in the preface that Geschwitz, not Lulu, is the tragic figure.24


The cinema, however, is still silent. Its expressivity, the way it speaks to the mind and the senses is different, and different affective values attach themselves to gesture, decor or face. With it, the relation of expression to repression changes; conflict and contrast, antinomies and argument are suggested, and perceived by an audience, in forms specific to the cinema.

When Leopold Jessner staged Die Büchse der Pandora in 1911, he had written:

Lulu is honest, because she is woman, only woman, who however, has succumbed to the pleasure of the senses, in an elementary form (Urwüchsigkeit) that cannot but bring disaster to us civilised beings, removed as we are from animal instincts.25

In 1923 he made a film called Loulou, with Asta Nielsen in the title role. Louise Brooks, who saw the film, describes Jessner's conception and Asta Nielsen's performance as follows:

There was no lesbianism in it, no incest. Loulou, the man-eater devoured her sex-victims—Dr Goll, Schwarz, Schoen—and then dropped dead in an acute attack of indigestion.26

To Louise Brooks Loulou is pure camp, because the relationship between theatrical and cinematic body-language is so different; Jessner's conception of cinema is clearly felt to be inadequate, even though his conception of the figure (‘Lulu is honest’) would be completely endorsed by Louise Brooks. The cinema itself, and not least the American cinema, had drastically changed what was to be accepted as ‘honest’ in the visual representation of sexuality and affect. Fritz Rasp, also a favourite actor of Pabst's (Diary of a Lost Girl,Love of Jeanne Ney,Threepenny Opera) recognised this very well:

The first law of film acting has been for me, right from the start, to be very reticent with my gestures. When I came from theatre to the stage, I realised that acting for the living image meant a complete break with the theatre, and that the strongest visual effects are … achieved solely through the complete internalisation of a role, for which one is the right physical type. That is why I prefer working for directors who have … recognised my physical appearance … so that acting in film, although this may seem paradoxical, is for me today not ‘acting’ at all, but—‘being’.27

Another aspect needs to be remembered, one that points to a sociological difference between theatre and cinema, in respect of audiences—that is to say, in respect of the kinds of visual pleasure, curiosity and emotion that might bind an audience to the cinema. Wedekind's plays engage an audience's curiosity on a double level: the interest in the representation and dramatisation of raw sexual desire is coupled with the gratification of a social curiosity that allows glimpses at the private pleasures and vices of the ruling classes. In Berlin of the late '20s, by contrast, as Louise Brooks remarks:

the ruling class publicly flaunted its pleasures as a symbol of wealth and power.28

Not only could the film not expect to shock with revelations, the curiosity and fascination which Pabst's Büchse der Pandora wanted to arouse had to be of a quite different nature. Again, Louise Brooks:

At the Eden Hotel, where I lived in Berlin, the café bar was lined with the higher-priced trollops. The economy girls walked the street outside. On the corner stood the girls in boots, advertising flagellation. Actors' agents pimped for the ladies in luxury apartments in the Bavarian Quarter. Race-track touts at the Hoppegarten arranged orgies for groups of sportsmen. The nightclub Eldorado displayed an enticing line of homosexuals dressed as women. At the Maly, there was a choice of feminine or collar-and-tie lesbians. Collective lust roared unashamed at the theatre. In the revue Chocolate Kiddies, … Josephine Baker appeared naked except for a girdle of bananas. …29

Louise Brooks' description of ‘collective lust’ not only highlights the sexually explicit, but also the sexually ambiguous aspect of Berlin high- and low-life. In this respect, the world of entertainment is clearly also part of what defines sexuality and sexual difference for society as a whole.

But once it is no longer prescribed in biological categories (and roles do not divide strictly along the lines of gender), sexuality becomes itself more than a social product: a symbolic structure that can articulate other values, distinctions and categories. In Pabst's film, for instance, Lulu's sexual attraction is invariably portrayed in the context of sexually ambiguous attributes. Throughout the relationship with Dr Schoen, it is her androgynous body that is emphasised. With Alwa Schoen, an incestuous and homosexual element is always present. At her wedding, Pabst makes her dance most sensuously with the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, and on the gambling boat, she lets herself be seduced by a young sailor, in order to exchange clothes with him. Following on directly from this reversibility of attributes seems to be the principal ambiguity that preoccupied critics of Lulu, both in the plays and the film—whether she is a victim or an agent, whether she has a passive or an active role in the events of which she is the centre. Wedekind himself writes:

Lulu is not a real character, but the personification of primitive sexuality who inspires evil unaware. She plays a purely passive role.30

Yet this conception of Lulu as a catalyst of the obsessions and neuroses, of the restless searching for meaning and value among the men she encounters, is rendered ambiguous precisely because she is a ‘personification’. As such she has a positive presence, because for Wedekind ‘primitive sexuality’ does constitute an expressive potential as well as a creativity that is close to an absolute, the presumed ‘essence’ of woman.31 Critics did not always see Lulu as ‘purely passive’. An English reviewer wrote:

Wedekind reacted against German Naturalism and his plays are as full-blown and direct as anything the Elizabethans could produce; indeed, the nearest parallel to his Lulu cycle is The Duchess of Malfi, except that in the former case the woman is the active principle of evil.32

Agency is a crucial question because in our society moral evaluation of guilt or innocence, evil or virtue attaches itself to intentionality and agency. Given the traditional division of sex and gender in terms of active and passive, Lulu's behaviour would find itself interpreted accordingly, and thus her function as a figure of projection for fantasies of power and control is also at stake.

Pabst, it seems to me, resituates all these questions, firstly by a script that drastically reduces the number of protagonists and simplifies their narrative functions, and secondly, by his choice of actress. The narrative, apart from stressing sexual ambiguity, involves the male protagonists (except Schigolch) in a perpetually brooding, scheming, angry and frustrated state, the very parody of inwardness in search of expression and self-realisation. Against this world, obsessed with intentionality, goals and motives, Lulu appears exacerbating and provocative, ie seductively sexual—because she is a being of externality, animated but without inwardness; attentive, but without memory; persistent, but without willpower or discipline; intelligent but without self-reflexiveness; intense but without pathos. Her superiority resides in the fact that these effects-without-causes are experienced by the men as both fascinating and a threat.

As to the choice of actress, the cameraman Paul Falkenberg reported:

Preparation for Pandora's Box was quite a saga, because Pabst couldn't find a Lulu. He wasn't satisfied with any actress at hand, and for months everybody connected with the production went around looking for a Lulu. I talked to girls on the street, on the subway, in railway stations …33

Louise Brooks had her own conception of the role. She, too, seems inclined to see Lulu as a victim, although elsewhere she says that at the end, Lulu ‘receive(s) the gift that has been her dream since childhood. Death by a sexual maniac’.34 Here is why she thought the film controversial:

(Besides) daring to show the prostitute as victim, Mr Pabst went on to the final damning immorality of making his Lulu as ‘sweetly innocent’ as the flowers that adorned her costumes and filled the scenes of the play. … How Pabst determined that I was his unaffected Lulu, with the childish simpleness of vice, was part of the mysterious alliance that seemed to exist between us. … When Pandora's Box was released in 1929, film critics objected because Lulu did not suffer after the manner of Sarah Bernhardt in Camille. Publicity photographs before the filming of Pandora's Box show Pabst watching me with scientific intensity. … (He) let me play Lulu naturally … And that was perhaps his most brilliant directorial achievement—getting a group of actors to play unsympathetic characters, whose only motivation was sexual gratification. Fritz Kortner, as Schön, wanted to be the victim. Franz Lederer, as the incestuous son Alva Schön, wanted to be adorable. Carl Goetz wanted to get laughs playing the old pimp Schigolch. Alice Roberts, the Belgian actress who played the screen's first lesbian, the Countess Geschwitz, was prepared to go no further than repression in mannish suits.35

It is quite possible to see the film in the terms that Louise Brooks suggests: Lulu is a child-like creature, and her attraction resides in the incorruptibility, the lack of guile, menace, calculation, the simple pleasures she enjoys, among which are sex, but it could be the bulging biceps of a trapeze artist, the sight of old Schigolch in the doorway, the fashion page in an illustrated journal, or mistletoe at Christmas-time. But Lulu is not one of those obsessional figures of the Victorians—a child bride or Browning's ‘Last Duchess’. Her sexual ambiguity and indeterminacy has nothing to do with puberty. Just as Pabst seems concerned to redefine active and passive, so he is at pains not to take up Wedekind's paradigm of the anti-social as identifiable with animal nature or tropical vegetation (it is Dr Schoen who keeps a particularly wild and luxuriant plant in his office). She is modern, in a manner that at the time would have been labelled ‘American’, even without the choice of a Hollywood actress for the part and the ballyhoo this created. But the film does not make ‘Americanism’ an issue as did Pabst's Joyless Street. On the contrary, it gives us a Lulu practically without origin, or particular cultural associations. No doubt, because it allows for a much more ‘symbolic’ configuration: Pabst's Lulu in her relations with Schoen father and son, as well as on the gambling boat, acts as a stake for male/male power play, and her role is circumscribed by a male double fantasy: she is the woman that father and son both want to possess; she is also the phallic mother whom they want to destroy, the father by demanding that she kill herself, the son by wishing her to act out his own parricidal desire, so that his guilt feelings become her crime. In this respect, the film takes up in elegantly condensed figurations some of the main themes and motifs of Kracauer's (male, paranoiac) German soul. But the very elegance and sophistication of Pabst's narrative and visual solutions indicates that Pandora's Box is not primarily about the secrets of this (German) soul: more a knowing allusion to homosexual latency, and a deconstruction of the pathos of repression/expression. A central complex of German Expressionism is inspected with serene indifference, an indifference to which Lulu gives a (provisionally) female form.


Pabst's particular strategy can perhaps be best demonstrated by a look at the opening scene. A man's back is turned to us. He seems to be noting something in a book. It is the meter man, reading the electricity in Lulu's apartment. We first see her, as she comes from the living room into the hall, in order to give the man a small fee and offer him a glass of liqueur. Torn between looking at the bottle and looking at Lulu's revealing dress, the man drops some coins, but before he can pick them up, the bell rings, and grandly, he volunteers to answer the door for her. Outside is a shabby old man, holding his bowler hat with self-deprecating humility. With another grand gesture, the meter man takes a few coins from his waistcoat pocket, to give to the old man and be rid of him. But Lulu, peering past his back, recognises the visitor, rushes out, and flings her arms around the old man; she pulls him into the apartment and past the meter man into the living room, shutting the door. The meter man, not hiding his surprise and disappointment, stoops to gather up the lost coins, goes over to the chair and picks up his peaked cap and battered briefcase. He gives the closed door an indignant look and exits by the front door.

The scene plays on a number of ambiguities. As I hope the description conveys, the meter man (whom the spectator only gradually perceives as such: without his official uniform cap and his back turned, he merely looks the kindly old gentleman) is caught in both a class- and a sex-fantasy, which allows him, even if only for an instant, to place himself in the position of owner of the apartment, and desirable suitor. He becomes Schoen, the master, by the very appearance of someone socially inferior to himself, whom he can patronise by giving him alms. Mirroring himself in the smile of a ravishing young woman he becomes young and handsome himself, and the fact that his attention is further divided between sexual allure and alcohol, allows him the illusory choice between two kinds of transgressions, of which the one he chooses, namely alcohol, may well be the consolation he seeks for the unattainability of the other.

In this brief episode, remarkable for giving us virtually no plot information, the normal social relations implied by master and servant (or mistress and servant), of favours rendered and money received, of alms, fees and gratuities—in short, the conditions of exchange and value—are comically suspended. But it is not only the meter man's illusions that are shattered, when the mistress of the house and the beggarly tramp fall into each other's arms. The spectator, too, plunged in medias res, has no time to get her/his visual bearings, for the scene is staged and edited in a very complex succession of camera-movements, glance-glance shots and glance-object shots, whose function it is to create a very mobile point-of-view structure. It establishes hierarchies and relations between the characters, only then to undo them again. There is, for instance, a very noticeably false continuity-match—Lulu is looking off-screen right, when the logic of the glance-glance cut demands her looking off-screen left—which increases the sense of an imaginary space, not quite destroying but also not quite confirming the realistic space of the hallway and entrance lobby. The two doors, front door and apartment door, suggest a rather theatrical proscenium space, but it is the effect of editing and the dynamic of the point of view shots which establishes the illusion of a real space, while at the same time, undercutting it, making it imaginary. Juxtaposed to this imaginary space, and counteracting the spectator's disorientation (which he shares with the meter man), is the image of Lulu, framed by the door and offering the spectator, too, a radiant smile and the imaginary existence of pleasure and plentitude. The disorientation increases the fascination, the dependence on the image, yet the very excess of the smile (excessive because not registering or responding to the meter man's lowly social status, Schigolch's shabby clothes) breaks the strictly narrative function of her presence within the frame, and makes her a figure of desire in and for the spectator's imaginary.

The scene is a kind of emblem of the film itself: first, in its view of social relations, since Lulu, at the end, when back in the world of Schigolch and past all sense of bourgeois decorum, flings herself into the arms of another outcast, Jack the Ripper, with the same unbounded smile. Secondly, it is also a scene that initiates cinematic identification, by placing the spectator in the fiction, via the meter man, whose lack of plot function turns the episode into a parable of movie watching as a paid-for pleasure. With his exit, the petit-bourgeoisie, Kracauer's Angestellten, exit from the fictional space of the film, and yet, they are the historical audience that the film addresses. They may take pleasure in seeing themselves portrayed on the screen, but—according to Kracauer—they take even more pleasure (and thus open themselves up to the play of pleasure and anxiety) in identifying with their ‘betters’. The meter man waiting in the hall of Lulu's apartment, is in some sense also the officeworker waiting in line at the entrance lobby of the Gloria Palast, for the star to appear or the show to begin. The prologue points out, lightly, how fragile his class-identity is, and the play on the man's uniform and status recalls Murnau's Last Laugh, of which it is in a sense a parody: the presence of Lulu makes it impossible for sexuality to be the repressed signified of the scene, as it is throughout Murnau's film. Lulu's total indifference to class and status renders the predominant anxiety of the early Weimar cinema—déclassement and proletarianisation—a comic rather than a tragic motif. The meter man's humiliation or disappointment derives from the total reversal and reversibility of the social and sexual positions, as Lulu demonstrates.


The opening scene leads me to formulate a cautious hypothesis about sexuality in the film and its power of attraction: sexual desire constitutes itself for Pabst in the hesitation between two roles, between two glances. Lulu's ‘essence’—or that of femininity in the realm of the sexual—is nowhere except in these moments of choice and division, in the reversibility of the order of exchange. Lulu is an object of desire in the imaginary of men and women, old and young; but her symbolic position is never fixed, it criss-crosses both class and gender, both the Law and moral authority.

In fact, Lulu is desirable whenever her appearance is caught in the crossfire of someone else desiring her as well, and her sexual attractiveness constructs itself always in relation to someone experiencing a crisis in their own sexual identity. An example is the encounter between Dr Schoen and his son Alwa, when the father, after having decided to give up Lulu as his mistress, realises that his son is sexually interested in her: suddenly his passion is once more inflamed by anger, hatred and jealousy. But the son, too, experiences desire via someone else. He falls in love with her only after having seen the jealous and passionate glances that Countess Geschwitz casts at Lulu in his studio.

Such a triadic structuration strongly suggests a psychoanalytic reading along the lines sketched above: Lulu's murder by Jack the Ripper merely completes the homosexual fantasy that is centred on Alwa. After the father has died in the son's arms, killed by the mother, on whom the son has projected the guilt for his incestuous desire, Alwa appears to have freed himself from his obsession. But Lulu's escape, thanks to Countess Geschwitz, and the appearance of Casti-Piani on the train, trap Alwa once more in a masochistic, self-punishing role, powerless against the father-figures, and displacing his masochism onto Lulu, with whom he identifies. In the London scenes, the regressive—oral and anal—aspects are heavily underscored: the three live in filth, and their abode is penetrated by wind, rain, fog and cold; the skylight window, pictured as a black hole, is constantly torn open. All three of them are exclusively preoccupied with oral gratification, Alwa greedily devouring the piece of bread that Lulu breaks off for him in disgust, and Schigolch sucking his brandy bottle like a baby. He finally settles down to Guinness and a big Christmas pudding—a return to the beginning, where both he and the meter man preferred oral pleasures to sex. Alwa's infantilism—he is in turn enraged and petulant—represents the sado-masochistic stalemate of his unresolved Oedipal dilemma. Emerging from the fog is Jack the Ripper who is also Alwa's double: for in the encounter between him and Lulu the two sides of Alwa's personality are fully played out—the tender, yielding and seductive side, and the punishing, castrating, destructive side. It is a scene filmed without violence and struggle, hence disturbingly archaic, where the very tenderness indicates a fantasmatic and also regressive quality. As the Ripper leaves and meets Alwa at the front door, a sign of recognition seems to pass between the men that sets Alwa free and allows him, too, to disappear into the fog, having found his sexual salvation from ambivalence.

The film is centred on Alwa in such a reading—problematic in terms of plot, but suggestive of a possible male spectator position. Conversely, a feminist reading might argue that Lulu, after challenging Oedipal and patriarchal logic by placing herself outside it, had succumbed to it the very instant she herself manifests sexual desire, as she clearly does for the Ripper. In this sense, her death inscribes itself in a hysterical reassertion of patriarchy: the woman is sacrificed, so that the order of men can continue, cemented by a perpetually displaced homosexuality and a desexualisation of women as represented by the female Salvation Army that accompanies the entire episode.36 Yet it seems doubtful whether this reading is wholly satisfactory either: however poignant the tenderness, it is without pathos or the element of horror one might associate with such a scene. The tenderness stays, but a cool irony ensures that the end is anticlimactic, a dream that is already faint, and fading, as it occurs, into the darkness that envelops all.

I would prefer to see in the ending another way that Pabst distances himself from the socio-sexual imaginary that Kracauer describes, by showing the events as if he was citing them, and thus holding up for inspection a certain form of patriarchy, or more precisely, a particular vision of sexuality—at once ecstatic and apocalyptic—as it might be said to characterise Wedekind's plays and Expressionism, Kokoschka's Murder Hope of Women, or Brecht's Baal.

For the dynamism of the film, its vivaciousness—and to this extent, its fundamentally different eroticism—comes in large measure from the stark, but always modulated, and often subtly shaded contrast between Lulu's agility, the diaphanous and transparent quality of her body in motion, and the solidity, the heavy black bulk of the men, blocking her way. Lulu's body is in motion even when she stands still, because motion might carry her away at any instant, unmotivated, mercurial and unpredictable. Just as Lulu smiles, and one hesitates to say why, or at whom, and from what inner vision, so her body moves without necessarily inflecting her gestures with intentionality, whereas about the men, every move, every finger and eyebrow is heavy with significance. Of Fritz Kortner, as Dr Schoen, we mainly see his back. His acting style, and Pabst's use of him to fill the frame, stress the bull-necked, looming and cowering nature of his physiognomy. Such a body conveys to perfection (in that it translates into kinetic-gravitational force) the complex interplay of will-power and instinctual drive, of anger and repression, of frustrated, barely-controlled, finally flaring aggression and masochistic, self-tormenting, suicidal despair, which makes Dr Schoen the quintessential contrast of Lulu, and one that becomes paradigmatic for all the men in the film. After Schoen's death, Alwa, Rodrigo, or Count Casti-Piani merely have to affect a scowl, a frown, to bend a shoulder or raise an arm, and one associates the body of Dr Schoen, what he stands for in terms of ruthless plenitude (despite the contradictions) against Lulu's fluidity and lightning changes of place. As the opening scene shows, Fritz Kortner's back is not even the first in the film, among the long line of backs that finally, in the London scenes, spread blackness everywhere.

Countess Geschwitz, in her sexually ambiguous role, is a good example of how what is male and what is female is defined by its physical and gestural support, the always changing contrast between two kinds of bodies, two kinds of body-languages, two ways of filling and traversing the screen. She, Alwa and Schigolch can appear as one or the other, depending on how the dynamics of the visual composition define and redefine their symbolic positions in the narrative. And while it is comparatively easy to describe the kind of masculinity that manifests itself in Dr Schoen, then transmits itself to Alwa and Rodrigo, and finally, in a less unified, more vacillating form, reappears in the Ripper, it is much more difficult to assign to Lulu—and Louise Brooks' acting—a similarly consistent (in both senses of the word) psychological essence. Dr Schoen's back and its doubles are the very image of motive, design, intentionality, the world of cause and effect, of self-realisation as self-imposition, to which correspond self-abandonment and self-pity as their negative mirrors.

Lulu, by contrast, is always in-between: between the meter man and Schigolch, between Schigolch and Dr Schoen, between Rodrigo and Schigolch, between Alwa and Countess Geschwitz, between Alwa and Dr Schoen, between Rodrigo and Alwa, between the stage-manager and Dr Schoen, between the State prosecutor and Countess Geschwitz, between Casti-Piani and Alwa, between Casti-Piani and the Egyptian. … If it was simply a matter of sexual desire, the sexual would indeed emerge as the elemental, irrational, a-social force that it is in Wedekind. Yet almost invariably an economic motif appears to disturb the symmetry. It accompanies the sexual link between the characters, but it also crosses it in the opposite direction. This may be a banal observation if one sees Lulu as a prostitute, who trades sex for money. In actual fact, sex and money stand in a much more complex relation to each other in the film. Certainly, she appears as a kept woman, but it is nonetheless Lulu who gives money—to the meter man and then to Schigolch. Dr Schoen finances Alwa's theatre revue, as a way to stop Lulu getting involved with his son. Schigolch introduces her to Rodrigo, because ‘men like Schoen won't always pay the rent’, but Rodrigo has no sexual interest in her. Countess Geschwitz supports Lulu financially, because she is in love with her, but the favour is not returned. Casti-Piani blackmails Alwa, but he is not interested in Lulu sexually. On the boat, Rodrigo tries to blackmail her, and it is only with a complicated sexual ploy that she can get rid of him. By this time, Alwa is no longer interested in her sexually, yet constantly demands money from her. The police are offering a reward for her arrest, and the Egyptian is quoting a price for her body: Casti-Piani simply calculates which is the better deal. In the London scenes, where Lulu is most explicitly shown as a prostitute, we never see her with clients or in a financial transaction, and she gives herself to Jack the Ripper precisely because he has no money.

Sexual desire is thus part of a more generalised structure of exchange, and in the case of the men, it seems wholly bound up, but not identical with, money and finance. Male desire, in other words, has a precise exchange value, for which either money or sex serve as accepted currency: Lulu is that which allows both desire and money to circulate. The reward offered in the name of the law, for instance, opens up an unbroken chain between police, Alwa, Casti-Piani, the Egyptian slave-trader, Rodrigo and Geschwitz: it is as if the law fixes Lulu's price, and everyone else enters into an exchange, in order to trade most favourably with the same stock.

The scenes on the gambling ship make the relations explicit: while gambling with cards goes on at the tables, Casti-Piani and the slave-trader bargain over Lulu, and a sexual gamble between Rodrigo and Countess Geschwitz is started by Schigolch: all three of them finally decide Lulu's fate, but they do so negatively. It is the sexual role-change that saves her life. What on the level of the plot appears as the suspense logic of melodramatic complication, is in effect an attempt to dramatise ‘the relativity of values’ in a given society. (The gaming tables, and the mad rush for the stakes, when Alwa has been caught cheating, inevitably recall the stock exchange and gambling imagery of Lang's Dr Mabuse the Gambler, 1922). In this instance, however, as in Wedekind's play, this is accomplished without constructing sexuality as an absolute. On the contrary, in Pabst's film a new kind of equivalence, under the sign of interminable exchangeability, is shown to exist between desire, sex and money, an endless chain, which is both the motive force behind the men's anger and frustration, and the reason why they are—despite the different Oedipal/class configurations—mere substitutes for each other.

The London episode is here doubly ironic. It takes us back to the world of the lumpenproletariat, a world outside bourgeois society where the nexus capital-productivity (of which the gaming tables are both parody and apotheosis), sex and money does not apply, and the whole libidinal economy of exchange is meaningless: Jack the Ripper and Lulu are not endowed with the kind of super-sexuality which the Lulu plays project onto the lumpenproletariat. Instead, she is at her most maternal and child-like, and he is clearly impotent. At the same time, they meet at Christmas, amidst the dispensations of the Salvation Army. In other words, Pabst takes them outside all constituted forms of exchange into limit-cases and utopian forms of exchange—those of the gift, of grace and salvation. Directed against both Wedekind's social romanticism, and against the emergent capitalist logic of exchange, as well as criticising the institutionalised otherworldliness of religion, the ending is so anticlimactic because it's built as a series of mutually undercutting ironies.


If the gambling ship is in a sense the fictional metaphor for the economic chaos of the Weimar Republic, demonstrating the mechanics of inflation, de- and revaluation as it inflects and transforms sexual difference, and with it the symbolic position of women within a patriarchal society, Pabst also has in mind another emergent institution that is radically transforming society: the symbolic logic that ties together subjectivity and representation, sexuality and the image. This institution might be called the order of the spectacle, and it appears in Pandora's Box as the critique of theatre in the spirit of the cinema, this time not focused on acting but on mise-en-scène.

At the centre of the first part and as its climax, Pabst has placed a scene in the theatre—in terms of the narrative, it is the point where all the threads so far introduced are tied into the proverbial Gordian knot, which Lulu undoes at a stroke. It is the opening night of Alwa's revue. Lulu suddenly refuses to go on stage, because she has seen Dr Schoen enter, accompanied by his official fiancée, the daughter of the Prime Minister. Despite everyone's protestations and entreaties, Lulu remains adamant. The tension mounts, the stage-manager is frantic. Eventually, Schoen agrees to see Lulu in her dressing-room. But no amount of aggression, verbal or physical, appears to move Lulu to a change of mind. Dr Schoen, eyes blazing with hatred, cannot resist the seductive force of her negativity. Sexually aroused, he embraces her at just the moment when Alwa, frantic, and Schoen's fiancée, worried about his absence, enter the dressing-room. Profound consternation all round, except for the theatre-manager and Lulu, who, triumphant, sweeps past the shocked assembly and leaves the dressing-room in the direction of the stage. The scene ends with a brief exchange between father and son (symmetrical to the one where the two struck the bargain over Lulu's appearance in the revue), to the effect that Schoen will marry Lulu, even though (because?) it will be his ruin.

What gives the scene its force is primarily the editing, as it cross-cuts between the effervescence and mounting chaos on- and back-stage, and the more and more single-minded determination of Lulu to provoke a show-down, once and for all. But determination is perhaps the wrong word, because it makes her seem too active, when in fact it is the strength of her refusal, her negativity, the control she keeps on her absence that makes the events take shape in her favour. Pabst here recasts and reformulates the central ‘moral’ issue of the play: is Lulu active or passive, evil or innocent? The answer that the film gives is that she is neither, that it is a false dichotomy. Instead, it becomes a matter of presence or absence, of spectacle, of image and mise-en-scène: Lulu puts on a show of her own disappearance—and reappearance. The spectacle of her person, about which she controls nothing but the cadence and discontinuity of presence, is what gives rise to desire and fascination. Lotte Eisner, trying to describe the magic of Louise Brooks' acting, after a visit to the set in 1929, circles around the same phenomenon:

And this Louise Brooks, whom I had scarcely heard speak, fascinated me constantly through a curious mixture of passivity and presence which she projected throughout the shooting. … (She) exists with an overwhelming insistence; she makes her way through these two films (ie Pandora's Box and The Diary of a Lost Girl) always enigmatically impassive. (Is she a great artist or only a dazzling creature whose beauty traps the viewer into attributing complexities to her of which she is unaware?)37

What Lotte Eisner does not discuss, is the role of Pabst's editing technique in achieving the effect of enigmatically impassive presence. Film history usually credits him with a particular type of montage or editing-style that makes the transitions from shot especially smooth, dynamic and impercpetible, the so-called ‘cut on movement’:

At the moment of one cut somebody is moving, at the beginning of the adjoining one the movement is continued. The eye is thus so occupied in following these movements that it misses the cuts.38

In observing, say, on an editing table, the way that Pabst breaks down a scene into smaller and smaller units, to reassemble, intercut and build up the fragments into a complex crescendo of frantic motion, one can clearly see the above principle at work in giving the impression of speed, dynamism and simultaneity—the aesthetic juncture between futurism and classic Hollywood narrative cinema. But the more crucial effect in the theatre scene is derived from another logic altogether, that of the point-of-view shot, which is to say, the mise-en-scène of glances and the organisation of the look. It essentially reconstructs the action in terms of seeing and being seen, of who looks at whom, across which intercut piece of business, dramatic fragment or decor space. Lulu disappears from the stage, because, as the intertitle says, she ‘will dance for the whole world, but not in front of that woman’, meaning Schoen's fiancée. But it is for Schoen's fiancée and son that her tantrum in the dressing-room is staged. When they see her and Schoen in each other's arms, the show is over. Not to appear in public means to re-stage a private, Oedipal, sexual drama in a space ambiguously poised between private and public, thus exacerbating the inherently voyeuristic-exhibitionist relationship between audience and performer.

With it, the battle of the sexes, the question of possession, of who belongs to whom and who controls whom, becomes a battle for the right to the look and the image, the positionality of the subject as seeing or seen. Dr Schoen's undoing, in the film's terms, is precisely that he, supreme possessor of the right to look, emphasised by his glittering monocle and his scowling, piercing eyes, becomes himself the object of the gaze: in other words, an image, which in terms of classical narrative is to say, feminised. Such is the logic of the visible that underpins the general position of women in our society, encouraged to objectify their narcissistic self-image as that which regulates their lives: in order to be and to assure themselves of their existence, they seek a gaze in which to mirror themselves. The star, especially the female star—itself a historical phenomenon—develops the implications of this specularity to its limits. Lulu has no gaze, hence the fascination of her smile. It is so open as to appear empty, unfocused, mirror-like. The few times she frowns or looks puzzled, Pabst neutralises her gaze by inserting a cut that disperses, disorients the direction, as in the deliberate mis-match of the opening scene. Some of the difficulties of finding the right actress, as well as Louise Brooks' detailed account of the shooting, confirm the importance that Pabst attached to the look that poses no threat. At one stage he considered Marlene Dietrich for the part, but is reported to have said:

Dietrich was too old and too obvious—one sexy look and the picture would have become a burlesque.39

In the theatre scene, the private Oedipal family spectacle is set within the public, exhibitionist revue. One seems to be the reason for the other, a kind of exchange seems to exist between them. Superficially, the contrast takes up a division already evident in Wedekind: that between the various bourgeois family dramas where Lulu makes her destructive presence felt, and the circus ring, in which she is exhibited among the wild and beautiful animals. But if Pabst similarly places his representation in a double perspective, it is not Wedekind's of family vs circus, social vs animal. Instead, we have two kinds of theatricalisation, two kinds of public spectacle, two kinds of visualisation (which effectively put both family and spectacle outside anthropological or biological associations). One might say that the film contrasts the world on-stage with the world back-stage, and the ironies, the dramatic interest, derive from the comic clash of two related, but dissimilar realms. However, Pabst's concept seems at once more complex and more reductive: the comic divisions between back-stage and on-stage in the film are actually dismembered and reassembled by Pabst into a single, continuous, but at the same time imaginary space—and this space represents the theatre as a machinery, the interaction of separate but interdependent parts.

In the traditional theatre, the area back-stage is that which is hidden from view, the ‘repressed’ part of the performance, so that a representation of the disjuncture between back-stage and on-stage invariably draws its comic and dramatic effects from the disjuncture expression/repression, the hidden and the revealed. This disjuncture, as I have been trying to point out, is precisely what Pabst sees as typical of Wedekind's contradictory and patriarchal conception of sexuality and social class, a conception that the film systematically scrutinises. Against ‘Loulou the man-eater’ he puts Lulu, the bright-eyed American starlet, and sets a modernist-constructivist view of spectacle and visual pleasure against the classical theatre's view of stage, ramp, proscenium, curtain, and the illusion of a self-generated enactment of reality. Less than two years before Pabst made Pandora's Box, the Bauhaus published in its house-journal the text and picture of what a recent exhibition catalogue lists as a ‘kinetic object-box’, Heinz Loew's Mechanical Stage-Model, intended as a manifesto ‘about stage-mechanics in general’:

Guided by a mistaken feeling, today everyone anxiously tries to hide from view on stage any kind of technical process. Which is why for a modern audience (‘den modernen Menschen’) back-stage is often the most interesting spectacle, since we live in the age of technology and the machine.40

This seems precisely the spirit in which Pabst conceived the scenes at the revue as a deconstruction of theatre by a constructivist cinema. Unlike the theatre, which represses and displaces the split between the spectacle and that which produces it, between the fantasies that lie behind the realism of its illusion, the cinema—although in one sense the realistic medium par excellence and dedicated to the creation of illusions—is, as the phrase has it, a dream factory. Pabst's Pandora's Box situates itself in this very split between back-stage and on-stage, between repression, displacement and the concealed, by showing the mechanics of repression and concealment, the mechanisms of presence and absence, of the imaginary within realism, and fascination within perception.

In Pabst's theatre, activity is a ceaseless, but syncopated succession of instances caught in motion. Animation and commotion constantly fill the frame, which seems incapable of containing the elements that traverse it. People and objects enter and exit, from left to right, but also vertically: the stage-manager is suddenly hoisted into the flies, part of the set that is being moved about blots out the main protagonist, decorations and pieces of costume disappear off-frame as if through an imagined trap door. The very instability of the composition, and the constant changes of view-point and angle, make it impossible to conceive as real, solid, existent the space extending beyond and outside the frame, as the illusion of realism demands. At the same time, everyone in frame is both actor and spectator, participant and audience. The performers crowd around when Lulu and Dr Schoen have their argument, and from the moment Schoen and his fiancée become visible, they are performers, in their own, but also more and more public drama. The only spectators that are absent, because never shown, are the members of the first-night audience in the theatre. Why does it not appear? Because it would anchor the fictional space in a realist-illusionist dimension, would allow the cinema-spectator to decide and define his/her own specular position unambiguously, by situating the fragments and partial views within an extra-filmic continuity—that of the staged performance and its location in narrative time and space. This position of knowledge the film withholds, and by refusing to provide the sequence with its master-shot, Pabst indicates the extent to which he shared the concerns and outlook of the constructivists. The cinema here defines itself through the theatre against the theatre, and through expressionist psychodrama against its concept of repression and Oedipalisation. Faced with an aesthetic problem not unlike that of Brecht, Pabst did not choose opera or the Japanese Noh plays for his Verfremdungseffekt, but American film-acting—neutral, minimal, pure surface and exteriority—the interface of sexuality and technology as it was present in Louise Brooks, not least thanks to her training as a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies.


Lulu is forever image: framed in the doorway or by Rodrigo's biceps, dancing in front of Schigolch or in a Pierrot costume hanging from the wall. In the jealous encounter between Geschwitz and Alwa she is present as the costume sketches that the Countess has drawn, and with an emphatic finger Schoen stabs at the same sketches when he tells Alwa that one does not marry women like Lulu. In court she is on display in the witness-box—the very image that Count Casti-Piani recognises in the newspaper when her face appears from behind the compartment door on the train. Finally, the Egyptian settles on a price after he has shuffled through a pack of photos, which catch the spectator in a significant hesitation about how to read the image: as ‘real’ (within the fiction), when in fact it is ‘merely’ a photo (within the fiction).

The nature and function of the look thus appears to be subject to the same divisions and ambiguities that structure the signifying materials of the fiction: class, gender, body, motion, frame. In strictly cinematic terms, an analysis of the relation of the close-up shots head-on into the camera, and other types of point-of-view shots, or the relation of off-screen space to on-screen space, would probably confirm the systematic use of these markers of difference in order to keep the narrative in the register of hesitation and ambivalence. What interests me here, however, is something else: it is tempting to identify a typically male look, the look of patriarchy, of which Schoen's is evidently the paradigm. It is the look of and through the monocle, a withering look that hits Lulu, Schigolch, Alwa, Geschwitz. We might call it the look of the Father, the Law, and its force is never broken or subdued; after Dr Schoen's death, it is merely passed on—to the State Prosecutor's monocle, to Alwa's scowl and Rodrigo's frown. Of all the sexualised men in the film, only Jack the Ripper's eyes are as unfocused as Lulu's. The film therefore establishes sexuality through the disavowed and hidden power of this look. For the spell to be broken one would have to imagine Lulu return the look in defiance, rather than acknowledge its force by constituting herself as picture and image. One would have to imagine Lulu turning round and sticking out her tongue at Dr Schoen—the way that for instance the heroine of Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou mocks a similarly castrating stare—in order to realise how this would change the film, break the fascination, because it would upset the delicate and invisible balance that has displaced the opposition between active and passive: ‘one sexy look and the picture would have become a burlesque’. The peculiar ambivalence that surrounds the encounter between Jack and Lulu resides not least in the fact that here, both characters transgress the logic of the look specific to their symbolic role in the fiction. This logic gone, the paradigm of fascination on which the narrative was built is broken.

Again, it would seem that only one reading is possible: the moment Lulu, representative of ‘the woman’, manifests desire and appropriates the look defined by the film as ‘male’, she suffers death at the hand of a severely psychotic male, tormented by evident castration anxieties. But the direction of what I have been trying to outline, the systematic difficulty of making units of the represented (in this case, men and women; the one who looks, the one who is being looked at) coincide with the act of representation (briefly, the editing, the point-of-view shot, the framing) suggests that it would be rash to reduce the fiction to a fable where characters act out ideological types or gender-specific positions. Could one not see the ending as a ‘disenchantment’, the breaking of a spell, and seek from there an answer to the question: what is desire, sexuality and fascination in the film?

The distinction I am trying to draw seems particularly important, since it is logical to ask whether there is opposed to the characters' look in the fiction, an inscribed gaze of the spectator, who after all, looks at all the characters and is free to draw his or her conclusion and assume the proper distance. Is the spectator's look identical with the act of representation? Can one juxtapose to the ‘castrating look’ the pleasurable look of the voyeur? In aligning these different types of look, it seems possible to see Lulu as the intermediary, the figure that allows for the commutation and exchange of different specular positions. For her response to the look of the Father is not to return the look with a suitably aggressive gesture, but to constitute herself as image and spectacle for the same or another subject's visual pleasure. An obvious because banal example is on the train, when, in response to Alwa's sullen frown, Lulu, as if by chance, attracts the interested and pleased eye of Count Casti-Piani. Similar reversals structure the entire court-room scene, where Countess Geschwitz, in order to divert attention from Lulu, makes a spectacle (an angry, rather than a pleasing one) of herself, which leads directly into the business of the staged fire-alarm and Lulu's escape.

This division, however, cannot be shown to work throughout. On the contrary, Pabst's use of the point-of-view shot and his editing establish a constant transfer or slippage between the various characters' point of view and that of the camera; since for the spectator characters are stand-ins, markers of position, in the field of signification, whose function it is to split, systematically, and in constantly changing dramatic contexts, the attention of the viewer, Pabst's textual system here introduces subtle but significant variations on the ‘norm’ of classic realism. A brief reminder of the role played by the meter man in the opening scene: the spectator participates in his point of view, ‘moral’ as well as physical. Yet, although he is on the screen for no more than a minute or so, his gaze, his back and his preference for liqueur are all ‘preserved’ for the fiction, as his semantic attributes are split between Schigolch, Schoen and the mobile, hovering, alternating point of view—making hesitation and indeterminacy part of the very definition of spectatorship and its pleasure in this film. Pabst's insistence on Lulu as image, framed picture for the characters in the fiction as well as for the spectator, renders even more ambiguous any distinction between the characters' look and that of the spectator. By far the most disturbing, because virtually unreadable scene—unreadable not in its narrative logic, but in the logic of glance-glance, facial expression, space and gesture—is the death of Dr Schoen. Schoen presses Lulu to kill herself, after he has surprised her in the conjugal bedroom with Alwa's head cradled in her lap. Pabst stages the scene in a series of medium shots, with Lulu and Schoen cut off at the waist. As Schoen tries to force the gun into Lulu's hand, both of them appear in the bedroom mirror. From then on, it is impossible for the spectator to decide whether he sees Schoen or his mirror-image, whether Schoen looks at Lulu, the camera or himself. On their faces, as they struggle, the expressions subtly and continuously change; from surprise, anger, anxiety they modulate until the emotive quality or intentionality of their looks become indecipherable. Finally, a faint column of smoke rises between their faces, Schoen looks pleased, Lulu surprised, but then Schoen's features become rigid, as his body begins to slide out of frame, and blood trickles from his mouth. Lulu's face glazes over, but also shows intent curiosity as the camera pulls back to reveal her holding the smoking gun. As she turns from the mirror, her body is broken up, by a rapid succession of close-ups, before it is virtually smothered by Schoen's slumped body. The scene ends with Alwa re-entering the room, looking fascinated and horrified at his father's dying face.

The very discrepancy between the highly dramatic, but nonetheless coherent narrative situation and the elaborate manner of its staging splits the spectator's perception and points of view in ways that subvert actantial (who does what to whom) and gender identification, in favour of a sliding, reversible, difficult identification of face and gesture. Its effect is to make the scene imaginary, which is to say, it allows us to talk about the scene as a fantasy, be it a primal scene fantasy or Alwa's own wish-fulfilling fantasy. What is important is that such a reading is not a metaphoric interpretation of a diegetically realistic scene. It is a specifically filmic elaboration of the signifying elements which renders the scene imaginary.

One might, however, just as convincingly, construct the scene as ‘narrated’ from Dr Schoen's point of view. In which case, it could represent his struggle, and ultimate failure, to ‘possess’ Lulu, to fix, limit and define her—if necessary by the act of marriage—in order to impose on her the negative identity of his obsessions. Schoen at the wedding is depicted as a man whose life is suddenly and dramatically getting out of control, and in the end only a pistol shot can put an end to the chaos. Since the wedding is in some important aspects a repetition of the chaos at the theatre, the notion suggests itself that the way he put a stop to the first one, namely by the proposal of marriage to Lulu, and the second one, the proposal that Lulu commit suicide, are structurally identical: a caustic comment on the bourgeois institution of marriage.

The problem with this reading, however, is that in the light of my earlier observations, it is impossible to ignore that the filmic narration in the scene is considerably more complex, making it unlikely that the narrative point of view is that of Dr Schoen. What the systematic ambiguity of the point-of-view structure does allow one to do is to speculate on the conditions of cinematic perception and fascination. In the staging of Dr Schoen's death, the act of viewing itself becomes an activity of the imaginary: presented as a series of views of ‘real’ or identifiable objects or part-objects (hands, faces, backs, etc), their sequence is, however, organised in such a way that they constantly imply what we do not see, or evoke a space where we are not. The cinema here is never what is shown: it is always also what the shown implies or demands in the way of the not-shown and not-seen. The many different systems that Pabst develops in this film for splitting perception, in order to create hesitation, indeterminacy or ambiguity are ultimately in the service of producing out of real perceptions imaginary sights. Pabst, one is tempted to say, wanted a mise-en-scène that would make Lulu a phantom, and the hyperreal magic of her sexual presence is the indeterminacy, at all these levels, of her sexual identity. Being an object of desire for everyone in the film, she preserves herself by being nothing and everything, a perpetual oscillation in the dramaturgy of conflict and aggression. The fact that Schoen cannot possess her and dies in the attempt to do so, gives an indication of Pabst's concept of the Lulu figure: to create a presence without an essence, a presence that is heightened to the point of hallucinatory clarity solely by the play of difference and ambiguity. He transforms the cinema into an institution that turns the desire for possession into an obsession with the image, and the obsession with the image into a mirror-maze of divided discontinuous, partial views, whose identification and interpretation always entail a fine and final doubt—for me indicated by the different readings of the symbolic structure I have given, none of which ‘settles’ the issue.


I said earlier that the meter man never returns. I would now like to revise this statement. We see him first studying a book. He turns round and sees Lulu, as the spectator sees her and when he sees her. The meter man is thus the first spectator, turning from writing/reading to looking. In a different guise, he returns as the last spectator. After Jack the Ripper kills Lulu, he steps out of a doorway, glances at Alwa, tightens his raincoat and walks off into the night fog. After a brief hesitation, Alwa, too, begins to walk off, disappearing into the night. They look like men leaving the cinema—not the Gloria Palast, but the sort of cinema that caters for men in raincoats. Both look disappointed, disenchanted, as if the spectacle had finally revealed its emptiness, its nothingness, had proven to be ‘a masquerade that shows that there is nothing there’. Jack the Ripper, as long as he looks into Lulu's eyes, is held by her image, the smile that fascinates with its radiant openness and indeterminacy. It is only when, in the embrace, he looks past Lulu, that the knife appears—the object of his own obsessions, like the ‘knife phobia’ of the protagonist in Pabst's Geheimnisse einer Seele/Secrets of a Soul, 1926. Past the image, past the smile, he encounters once more only himself, only his own anxieties. Jack the Ripper, as a stand-in for the spectator, wanting to grasp the presence that is Lulu, finds that he is distracted/attracted by the flickering candle and the glittering object: oscillating between the source of light and its reflection, his gaze traverses the woman, making her an image, a phantom, a fading sight.

This, once again, suggests a psychoanalytic reading. It suggests that, yes, indeed, the pleasures of spectatorship are of a voyeuristic nature, and that they enact a fetish fixation. And yet, what analysis shows is that the point-of-view structure and the manifold divisions of the film's textual system depend only in some respects on the ambiguities focused on the representation of the woman's body. Sexuality in the cinema, as it emerges from Pabst's film, is not a matter of censorship and innuendo, of frank portrayal and realistic scenes, or any of the other terms one usually finds in public debates about ‘pornography’—nor is it a question of degrading acts committed on women: all these positions, moral and ideological, Pabst seems to have anticipated and significantly restated. Sexuality in the cinema, in Pandora's Box at any rate, is the infinitely deferred moment of, the constantly renewed movement away from, identity—and the film sustains this movement by the creation of a specifically cinematic imaginary that has no equivalence in either literature or the theatre. Pabst called his film not Earth-Spirit, but Pandora's Box: Pandora's Box is the cinema-machine, the machinery of filmic mise-en-scène. The achievement of Pabst's film, in other words, is to have presented sexuality in the cinema as the sexuality of the cinema, and to have merely used as his starting point the crisis in the self-understanding of male and female sexuality that characterised his own period. Yet Pabst is far from implying an ontology of cinema, or to posit an essence of film, any more than he believes in an essence of sexual identity. The very play on ‘Büchse’/‘Box’, on the level of the signifier—can of film, camera, Freudian ‘symbol’ of the female sex—disperses any notion of the fixity of the signified, be it sex or the cinema.

This is why, in some respects, the Louise Brooks of Pandora's Box, can be compared with the Maria of Fritz Lang's Metropolis—the man-created robot-woman. Significantly enough, the figure of Lulu cannot be conceived as a mother, her eroticism is constructed on the paradigmatic opposition to all the traditionally female roles, and yet, while the same is true of the femme fatale, with the latter, it is a sociological and biological paradigm to which she is contrasted, rather than the technological-constructivism that seems to me to underlie Pabst's conception of Lulu. In Pabst's other film with Louise Brooks, Diary of a Lost Girl, the heroine does have a child—illegitimate, and taken away from her—and this fact fundamentally changes the character, making the film more of a melodrama and pathos-laden, the woman becoming the victim and the film a sociological pièce à thèse. With the introduction of the biological function of women, we immediately have sociology and morality, whereas in Lulu, it is precisely the absence of these motifs that makes the erotic shine so brilliantly but also so coldly. Indeed, Lulu's hint of a maternal function for Jack the Ripper is precisely that which makes her fallible and vulnerable. The film thus becomes a parable of the new woman, created by man, whose fatal weakness is her maternal ‘memories’.

The eroticism of Lulu is paradoxically that of the creature that comes to life, the auto-eroticism of the creator and the narcissism of the creature—a relationship only too familiar from the Sternberg-Dietrich myth, which Pabst very nearly anticipated with Louise Brooks three years earlier. This eroticism is one that plays, however, on a concomitant anxiety—that of the creature which emancipates itself from the creator, the sorcerer's apprentice—a motif which, with some justice, might be called the key motif of the German cinema since The Cabinet of Dr Caligari itself, in a tradition where the robot of Metropolis constitutes the decisive transformation, from ‘medium’ or Golem to vamp and woman. It is this genealogy that might give one a clue to the mysteriously truncated subsequent career of Louise Brooks. In her essay on Pabst, she reports that, at the end of her work with him, he took her aside:

‘Your life is exactly like Lulu's’ he said, ‘and you will end the same way.’ At that time, knowing so little of what he meant by ‘Lulu’, I just sat sullenly glaring at him, trying not to listen. Fifteen years later, in Hollywood, with all his predictions closing in on me, I heard his words again—hissing back to me.41

What Pabst meant by ‘Lulu’ is perhaps precisely this: a woman, an American actress, created by the film industry into a star, becomes an object among objects, alive only in front of the camera. Louise Brooks' struggle with the film industry, as documented in her autobiographical essays, bore out exactly what it meant for an intelligent articulate woman to be a thing among things. It is as if, at the very threshold of becoming a star, Louise Brooks made a film which had as its subject the psychopathology of this very star system, against the background—not of Hollywood, or an ideological critique, but in terms of a very specifically German argument about expressionism, theatre, modernism and cinema. In this respect, the film is indeed the ‘tissue of arguments’ it was disparagingly called by Kracauer, testifying to the degree of ‘abstraction’ that the German cinema, in its commercial output, was capable of. The enigma of Louise Brooks is thus in part the enigma of Hollywood film-making, and the very film that might have made her a star allowed her to see what being a star entailed, in the mirror of a film that dramatised and contrasted the liberating pure externality of the ‘American’ character—the hope of Modernism for most of the '20s—with the contorted inwardness of the German psyche. Against its obsessiveness, but also its moral essentialism, her externality is seen to be not objectivity, and certainly not New Objectivity, but the object-status and objectification of a subjectivity and sexuality—that of women—that still had no name and no place. It was as if in the debate between patriarchy on the one side, and technological modernism on the other, Louise Brooks had glimpsed, albeit at first unconsciously in her defeats with Hollywood but later with full lucidity, the blank that both left for women as a site of representation and being.


Pandora's Box, then, is constructed in terms of indecision, hesitation, reversibility, ambivalence and ambiguity. All of these are characteristics of the imaginary, of the unconscious, and in the cinema they define fascination, pleasure and the desire awakened by the image. Out of the homogeneity of photographically reproduced reality, the cinematic process creates its own specific ambiguities, upon which it constructs systems of difference and differentiation that make up the cinema's particular mode of signification, its semiotic status.

The central thematic and fictional support of ambivalence in Pabst's film is sexual desire. Male obsessions—repressed homosexuality, sadomasochism, an urge to possess, capture, limit and fix—confront feminine androgyny and feminine identity in a play of presence and absence, masks and appearances, in a display of spectacle and image as the expression of a freedom from all teleology and essentialism. But, conversely, this androgyny, this ambiguity on the level of sexual definition and identity is only the support, the metaphoric matrix, if you like, that points in the direction of a whole series of other, abstract and conceptual registers of ambiguity—in this case, those that have to do with cultural and ideological stereotypes of active and passive, subject and object, but also with the cogency of Oedipal narratives and the symbolic roles they assign to male and female subjects, on the basis of which the spectators construct their individual subject-positions, structures of identification and visual pleasure.

The source of all these ambiguities, and that which articulates them as differentiation, structure and semiotic system, is the cinema itself, with its infinite capacity of divisions—based as it is on the total divisibility of its materials (the visible world) and the intermittence of its physical material, the individual frames of the celluloid strip, and its optical material, the beam of light. Lulu, the ‘free woman’, living without memory or regret, without guilt or volition, is a pure invention of the cinema. That she seems so modern and so real, is a sign of how much modern reality and the cinema have become interchangeable.

Pabst perceived this perhaps more clearly than most of his contemporaries. His emphasis on the cinema creating its own time—that of the motion of the camera whose signifiers the characters become and to which they lend their gestures, faces and expressivity—and its own space—that of editing and lighting, of the cut on movement or the cut according to the dynamics of the gaze (glance-glance, glance-object)—makes Louise Brooks embody the principle of the cinema itself, in its distinctiveness from literature, the theatre and the other arts. But in this very principle lies an objectification of human beings and a humanisation of technology such as the cinema has developed for itself and—through its institutions—has rendered autonomous, which makes Langlois' praise of Louise Brooks that I quoted at the beginning—‘she is the intelligence of the cinematic process’—so apt and so ambiguous. For this intelligence is the principle of divisibility and division itself, of exchange and substitution, as it can be observed in the symbolic logic of Western culture and society. By contrast, it is a sign of Louise Brooks' intelligence that she decided not to become the objectified commodity which the logic of this process demanded of her. What Pabst could not prevent, in any case, was the momentous shift, whereby the film industry, seizing on the woman's body, and focusing gratification so much on the voyeuristic look, turned the cinema into an obsessional, fetishistic instrument, and thus betrayed in some sense its Modernist promise, by making this modernism instrumental and subservient to the logic of capital and the commodity.


  1. Quoted in James Card, ‘The Intense Isolation of Louise Brooks’, Sight and Sound, Summer 1958, p. 241.

  2. Godard's references for this film were Renoir's Nana, Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc and Pabst's Lulu. Pabst himself has been quoted as being inspired by Dreyer's film.

  3. According to contemporary sources, all reference to an incestuous relation between Alwa and Lulu, a homosexual relation between father and son, a lesbian relation between Lulu and Countess Geschwitz were removed by appropriate cuts and a change of intertitles.

  4. H M Potamkin, ‘Pabst and the Social Film’, Hound and Horn, January-March 1933.

  5. Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood, Praeger, New York 1982, p. 95.

  6. A Kraszna Krausz, ‘G W Pabst's Lulu’, Close Up, April 1929, p. 27.

  7. S Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1947, p 178-9.

  8. An inverse judgement can be found in Kenneth Tynan's profile of Louise Brooks: ‘Pandora's Box belongs among the few films that have succeeded in improving on a theatrical chef-d'oeuvre’, in ‘Dream Woman of the Cinema’, Observer Magazine, November 11, 1979, p. 38.

  9. Louise Brooks op cit, p. 95.

  10. John Willett, The New Sobriety, Thames and Hudson, London 1978 p. 10.

  11. Walter Laqueur, Weimar: A Cultural History (I am using the German edition, Ullstein, 1977, p 10, which carries the famous Blue Angel still as its cover).

  12. John Willett op cit, p. 10.

  13. T W Adorno, ‘Siegfried Kracauer tot’, in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, December 1, 1966, quoted in K Witte (ed), Siegfried Kraucauer Kino, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1974, p 265.

  14. S Kracauer, op cit, p 11.

  15. ibid.

  16. ibid.

  17. See, for instance, Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious, Cornell University Press, Ithaca 1981.

  18. Patricia Mellencamp, ‘Oedipus and the Robot’, in Enclitic, vol 5 no 1, p 25.

  19. cf Klaus Theweleit, Männerphantasien, Rowohlt Reinbek, 1980.

  20. Erdgeist was published in 1895, Die Büchse der Pandora in 1904. For a brief sociological analysis of Wedekind's Lulu, see Frank Galassi, ‘The Lumpen Drama of Frank Wedekind’, in Praxis, Spring 1975, p 84-87.

  21. In the play, Alwa Schoen makes the following observation: ‘… the curse on our literature today is that it is much too literary. We know of no other questions and problems than those that crop up among writers and intellectuals. We see no further in our art than the limits of our interests as a class. To find back to great and powerful art, we would have to move much more among people who have never read a book in their lives, and for whom the simplest animal instincts serve as a guide to their actions. I have tried to work along these lines in my play “Earth-Spirit”’, Die Büchse der Pandora, Act I (my translation).

  22. ‘When writing the part of Lulu, the main problem was to depict the body of a woman through the words she speaks. With every line of hers I asked myself, does it make her young and beautiful? …’, Wedekind, quoted in Artur Kutscher, Wedekind Leben und Werk, Paul List, Munich 1964, p 128.

  23. Georg Lukacs, ‘Thoughts on an Aesthetic for the Cinema’ (1913), translated and reprinted in Framework, no 14, 1981, p 3.

  24. According to Kutscher, op cit, p 127, Wedekind told him that he had declared Geschwitz the tragic figure in the preface, because he hoped to deflect the legal objections to his play, raised at three successive trials in Berlin, Leipzig and again Berlin. However, very important is his conception of Geschwitz as ‘non-nature’, ie outside the binary opposition of social/natural and of gender-based sexual difference: ‘What the courts did not object to was that I had made the terrible fate of being outside nature (Unnatürlichkeit) which this human being has to bear, the object of serious drama. … Figures like her belong to the race of Tantalus. … I was driven by the desire to snatch from public ridicule the enormous human tragedy of exceptionally intense and quite fruitless inner struggles …’, Die Büchse der Pandora, Foreword (my translation).

  25. L Jessner, Schriften, Hugho Fetting (ed), Berlin (DDR), 1979, p. 213.

  26. Louise Brooks, op cit, p 94.

  27. Fritz Rasp, ‘Die Sparsamkeit der Geste’, in Film-Kurier, June 1, 1929.

  28. ibid.

  29. Louise Brooks, op cit, p 97.

  30. quoted in ibid, p 94.

  31. Artur Kutscher is very good on this point: ‘The inner pivot of Lulu is also determined by Wedekind's attitude to the women's question. … The nineteenth century and its movements of emancipation has “masculinized” Woman, and literature from … Hebbel … to Strindberg gave more and more scope and significance to her struggle. Wedekind is an opponent of this movement, he wants to turn this “culture” back to nature, and tries to emancipate, with a certain one-sided virulence, the female of the species (“das Weib”) from woman (“Frau”), by stressing animal instincts. It is, however, obvious from the whole conception of the character that he passionately endorses, influenced by Nietzsche, the values of suppleness and vitality.’ Kutscher, op cit, p 121.

  32. National Film Theatre programme note, no date, no citation or source.

  33. quoted in Louise Brooks, op cit, p 95.

  34. ibid, p 98.

  35. ibid, p 98-99.

  36. This reading owes a great deal to a discussion with Mary Ann Doane and a seminar paper she gave at the University of Iowa, in Spring 1979, on Pandora's Box.

  37. Lotte Eisner, ‘A Witness Speaks’, quoted in Louise Brooks op cit, p 107.

  38. MacPherson, ‘Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney’, Close Up, December 1927, p 26, quoted in S Kracauer, op cit, p 178.

  39. quoted in Louise Brooks, op cit, p 96.

  40. reproduced in Film als Film, catalogue Kölnischer Kunstverein, 1977, p 88.

  41. Louise Brooks, op cit, p. 105-6.

Linda Schulte-Sasse (essay date spring 1990)

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SOURCE: Schulte-Sasse, Linda. “A Nazi Herstory: The Paradox of Female ‘Genius’ in Pabst's Neuberin Film Komödianten (1941).” New German Critique 50 (spring 1990): 57-84.

[In the following essay, Schulte-Sasse examines the unique place of Komödianten as a movie featuring a woman in the genre of Nazi “genius” films.]

Ob Männer oder Frauen, ist ganz wurscht:
Eingesetzt muß alles werden

—Hitler, March 1945

G. W. Pabst's film biography of Caroline Neuber, Komödianten (1941), follows in most respects the paradigm of the “genius” films that pervaded Nazi cinema in the early forties. These films extol artists like Schiller, Mozart, Andreas Schlüter, or Rembrandt, scientists, inventors, and politicians as rebels combatting an ossified world. Consistent with this master narrative, Komödianten celebrates Caroline Neuber's efforts to free the German theater from the buffoon tradition of Hanswurst and to institutionalize theater as a serious medium. In this film as well the artist reigns supreme as a chosen being who transcends the ordinary, but whose path is one of “suffering.” Neuber, too, is “the way I have to be”; she is a visionary who prevails both against a hostile environment and against inner temptation. Like Herbert Maisch's film Friedrich Schiller (1940), Komödianten aligns itself with a late 18th-century aesthetic of the “heart” (taking considerable liberties with historical chronology in the process), and blends biographic events with motifs from 18th-century literature, particularly from the works of G. E. Lessing, who is also integrated into the film's plot. In short, Komödianten typifies the genius film in its nostalgic evocation of aesthetic euphoria, in its concoction of an imaginary collective history molded by the struggle of an individual for artistic autonomy, for the uniquely “German.” Like other protagonists of the genre, Neuber acts as a fill-in (in Lacan's sense) who reconciles social ruptures in the aesthetic realm. Yet for all of these likenesses, Pabst's film is unique among Nazi genius films in allowing a woman to forge historical progress. I intend to examine this gender perspective in Komödianten with the underlying questions in mind: How, given the male orientation of National Socialism, is it possible for a genius film to focus on a woman? Does Komödianten suggest that the functionalization of gender in Nazi cinema involves more than a subsumption of all texts under the notion of woman's colonization? Finally, how does the inscription of gender in Komödianten relate to the film's apparent valorization of late 18th-century aesthetics?

The fact that woman is relegated to the role of subordinate partner, nurturer, and reproducer of race in Nazi culture and cinema hardly needs reiteration. A glance at the personae embodied by “darlings” of the Third Reich such as “Reich Water Corpse” Kristina Söderbaum or Marika Rökk bears this impression out, as do a number of recent studies such as Anke Gleber's analysis of the subjugation of the female in Miss von Barnhelm (Hans Schweikart, 1940), Verena Leuken's reading of Heimat (Carl Froelich, 1938), or Karsten Witte's analysis of female guilt in The Great Love (Rolf Hansen, 1942).1 The latter two films illustrate how often even a film personality like Zarah Leander, whose independence and eroticism appear to challenge the patriarchal structure, is redomesticated within the narrative trajectory of her films, led back to her “place” behind or beside man and family.2

Conversely, the combination of women and political power in Nazi cinema is catastrophic, as Johannes Meyer's Fridericus (1936) illustrates. The film shows Frederick the Great encircled by a bitchy triumvirate: a pouty Maria Theresa, a conniving Madame Pompadour, and an abrasive Elizabeth of Russia. While the Leander vehicle The Queen's Heart (Carl Froelich, 1940) portrays Mary Queen of Scots sympathetically, even the film's title suggests its concentration on Mary as a woman tragically doomed by her beauty. The only female whose mythification in Nazi cinema rivals Frederick's is the Queen Luise of Veit Harlan's Kolberg (1945). However, Luise was not a ruling head of state, and her idolization as Germany's Landesmutter by no means undermines a patriarchal order, as a remark from Heinrich von Treitschke amply illustrates: “it is a touchstone of [Luise's] greatness that one can say so little of her deeds.”3

As this gender constellation indicates, women are deprived of an independent function in the genius film, generally serving to aid the male protagonist, suffer for him, or impede his mission. In Friedrich Schiller, for example, Laura and Franziska are intuitive comprehenders of male genius who voluntarily surrender Schiller to his art and, ultimately, to history. The women in Friedemann Bach (Traugott Müller, 1941) typify the male projections Silvia Bovenschen describes as “imagined femininity”: they act as conventional positive (Antonia) and negative (Fiorini) catalysts, representing the polar opposites of “heart” vs. eroticism, community vs. egocentrism, art vs. exchange value within the male protagonist.4 Many genius films render women even more peripheral, as does Paracelsus (1943), the other film Pabst completed in the Third Reich, or Robert Koch (Hans Steinhoff, 1939), in which the scientist Robert Koch's obsession with curing tuberculosis nearly drives his wife to despair.

Komödianten reverses this paradigm, “breaks the rules” of gender coding in Nazi film by featuring a woman as its exemplary historical agent. Neuber's diegetic role parallels precisely that of male protagonists in the genre, although, significantly, nowhere in the film is the title “genius” applied to her. I will argue that while Komödianten illuminates women's ambivalent social role under National Socialism in the forties, it does not radically reassess the feminine (either as body or as abstract principle) in the Nazi weltanschauung. While the film demonstrates that woman can act as a leader, that she can trespass beyond the boundaries of the private sphere in the name of a “higher cause,” it simultaneously restricts woman's historical agency to an essentialist concept of the feminine, and renders woman subordinate to and dependent upon male genius. My analysis will examine how two triadic character groups inhabit the film text: a (more or less fictional) all-female triad in which gender is ultimately displaced as the film's thematic focal point; and the (historical) male-female triad in which gender is restored as a principle of stratification. While the latter valorizes the feminine as crucial to German cultural history, it maintains a hierarchy of leadership in which the masculine ultimately dominates. Moreover, in fictionalizing history while feigning authenticity, it supports Nazism's aestheticization of politics. I will explore this subject further in the second part of my essay.

Komödianten begins with a dispute between Caroline Neuber and Hanswurst after the latter disrupts her theater performance of Medea with his vulgar jokes, which, however, are popular with the public. Neuber declares her intention to create “decent German theater.” Her theater troupe travels to Leipzig, where they perform Gottsched's Sterbender Cato, but after an argument with Gottsched on the direction theater should take, Neuber and her troupe leave. On the way to Leipzig the traveling troupe has picked up a young orphan, Philine Schröder, who has run away after her guardian tried to force her into an affair with Privy Councilor Klupsch in exchange for business favors. The playboy and theater buff Baron Armin Perckhammer falls in love with Philine and wants to marry her against the wishes of his aunt, Duchess Amalia of Weissenfels. Philine is separated from Armin through the intrigue of his relatives, and Neuber's troupe loses the support of the Duchess following an argument between the two women. Neuber is attracted to the Duke of Courland (Ernst Biron, ‘secret ruler’ of Russia), who invites her to make a guest appearance in St. Petersburg. The troupe becomes involved in an orgy in St. Petersburg and Neuber realizes that she must return to Germany. Here she burns Hanswurst in effigy, but Hanswurst and his supporters burn her stage and costumes in revenge. When the troupe runs out of money, Neuber's actors abandon her. The Duchess is distressed when Philine informs her of Neuber's plight; moreover, she finally recognizes the sincerity of Philine's love for Armin. Neuber dies in a remote forest, whereupon the Duchess builds a German National Theater in her honor.



“An der ist ein Mann verloren gegangen”: Neuber

In synthesizing male and female characteristics, Führer and mother, Caroline Neuber (Käthe Dorsch) represents the greatest anomaly among Komödianten's three “strong” women. The most important “masculine” behavior Neuber adopts is her renunciation of the private sphere for a life in the public domain (parallel to virtually all of Nazi cinema's genius figures), her exclusive devotion to her cause of furthering the theater, which is captured in her recurring command “further! further!” She repeatedly disparages women for their dependency on men, insisting: “… if I had ever had to, I would always have chosen art over love.” Her subjugation of the private to the public is manifested in Neuber's relationship to her husband Johannes: reversing a common constellation of Nazi cinema, Johannes is the wife, the loyal one who waits, who sacrifices personal needs for Neuber's “higher” cause.5 Yet far from naturalizing this reversal, the film suggests that male subjugation is an aberration. While Neuber crosses gender boundaries with relative ease, the reverse remains a source of discomfort; the spectator's sympathy for Johannes is problematized by a sense of embarrassment at seeing traditionally defined boundaries of masculinity transgressed, as when Johannes renders himself a literal buffoon by donning Hanswurst's clown costume.6

While Johannes's feminization provides a narrative counterpoint that facilitates Neuber's status as Mannsweib, her other partner, the Duke of Courland, threatens to drive Neuber back to her “natural” place in the private sphere. The interlude with the Duke again violates stereotypic gender distinctions by permitting a male to act as the negative catalyst nearly provoking a woman's downfall. The Duke—played by Gustav Diessl, who often personified dark, exotic men—is a male counterpart to threatening, eroticized women in the popular narrative tradition.7 The Duke's desire to drive Neuber back into the limited feminine sphere is suggested by his enjoyment of her as spectacle during their first encounter. The spectacle consists not only of Neuber's gala theater performance, but of the “performance” she delivers arguing with the Duchess of Weissenfels over the social status of actors. Yet the pairing of the Duke and Neuber also has an allegorical dimension. The Duke represents the eroticization of the arts (as divertissement) as it functioned historically in courtly culture. The opposition between the Duke and Neuber thus represents the opposition between an art subjected to external interests and an art which functions autonomously. Komödianten champions autonomous art by linking the Duke's notion of art as power with the courtly, the political, the erotic, and the alien: “You evoke passions, I tame them; you free feelings, I use them. Art and politics are related; both want to rule man.”8 Indeed, Neuber's affair with the Duke can be read allegorically as representing the obstacles which prevent the historical development of a powerful (autonomous) artistic culture in Germany. As a woman, Neuber represents the beginning of that process, which is temporarily threatened by the power-obsessed representative of the East who sweeps her away in a flood of eastern eroticism.

Xenophobia of course pervades the semioticization of geography inherent in the Duke's nationality and in Neuber's temporary displacement to the East. The alien Duke lures Neuber away from her place in the Heimat. The East with its “subhuman” inhabitants is linked here with the abandonment of boundaries and the pursuit of unlimited (sexual) pleasure, as well as with the amoral value system of courtly culture, standing since the 18th century in opposition to bourgeois “virtue.” Much like National Socialism's fantasy of the “Jew,” Komödianten's xenophobic portrayal of the East as the site of perilous dissolution is structurally necessary as a negative social fantasy, which is complemented by the organic unity of the German People as its positive form.9 In other words, the opposition of negative East/positive Volk fills a void in Nazi ideology and thus masks the impossibility of National Socialism's corporatist social vision. As a social fantasy, the East also serves as a negative counterpart to autonomous art, which is portrayed as a domain of self-restitution, of pleasurable decentering within a contained realm. Moreover, by linking the Duke with courtly art as the sphere of the erotic, excessive, and dissolute, the narrative displaces the historical opposition between the courtly and the bourgeois institutions of art onto an ahistorical opposition between power and creativity, between “lust” and “virtue,” in which lust is a degenerative force that erodes biological and spiritual strength. The film implies that both art and the erotic must be contained as threats to the genius-leader's internal autonomy; it regards the spheres of the self and of art as homologous (hence the Duke's double function as an erotic and artistic threat).

Neuber's trip to St. Petersburg illustrates how the abandonment of Heimat is equatable with loss of self; the genius or leader needs a biological foundation in the People in order to function as genius or leader. The episode affords Nazi cinema one more occasion to visualize eastern unculture laced with threatening eroticism—almost as a mise-en-scène of Spengler's theory of the depravity of the East. Like other depictions of Russian courts (cf. Fridericus, Karl Ritter's Cadettes [1941]), this one embodies Dionysian abandonment and disorder. The monumentality of the mainly interior sets in the St. Petersburg sequence underscores the overpowering effect of this “wild and alien” (Neuber) environment on the characters.10 Neuber's intoxication with the Duke's eroticism culminates in a room dominated by a massive fireplace that dwarfs (i.e., disempowers) the figures near it, while the fire itself—its flickering shadow reflected on the floor—acts as a metaphoric extension of the “fire” within the figures; Neuber refers to her feelings for the Duke as a “flame.” In his insistence that she abandon everything and “finally become a woman,” the Duke threatens the equilibrium Neuber has heretofore maintained between her private “family” life with her troupe and the public sphere. Passion demands submission—and submission is the destruction of the artist; hence Neuber fears “what is in [her] heart” much more than she fears Russia. The Duke again verbalizes the “fire” motif as he tells Neuber “burn your life!” and she responds “I'm burning, I'm dissolving. …” This is the closest she comes to dissolution (Entgrenzung), to losing the boundaries which must be maintained to ensure the containment of her artistic self.

The St. Petersburg sequence similarly underscores the symbiotic relationship Nazi cinema posits between leader and the led; Neuber's own loss of identity contaminates her troupe, which behaves as a “mass” in the sense in which Gustave LeBon used the term, engaging in indiscriminate lovemaking and debauchery. Neuber discovers the actors engaged in an orgy, an enactment of her own internal chaos. She descends a long spiral staircase, a motif which Freud associated with orgasm, and which visually underscores the figures' earlier joking analogy of Russia with “hell.” The circular and downward movement of the staircase signals the abyss into which the group has fallen, as do the circular Cossack (non-German, i.e., alien) dance movements and shrieks of those indulging in the bacchanal. As in Freud's conception of dream work, the visual manifestation of her own loss of self (“I died inside”) functions as a catalyst for Neuber's own self-retrieval, allowing her to restore herself as leader, and return to her work and to her un-erotic relationship with her husband. This again reinforces the dependency of art and genius on maintaining personal boundaries, on taming the desire for dissolution or merging with an Other. Yet once freed from the “fire of passion,” Neuber faces a literal fire when Hanswurst and his allies burn the troupe's set and costumes. As a carnivalesque aesthetic principle that ruptures aesthetic boundaries, Hanswurst (significantly characterized by Neuber as one who lacks “yearning,” [Sehnsucht]) also has to be contained, a triumph achieved only after Neuber dies in abject poverty.

As in other genius films, Neuber's act of fortifying the inner self is as important an achievement as her historical feat itself; indeed, the former is the prerequisite for the latter. In order to be constituted as a historical “personality,” the hero must ward off the erotic and become impenetrable, a self contained by what Klaus Theweleit calls “body armor.”11 Theweleit has demonstrated how the fascist male character creates an external self impervious to weakness. At the expense of an intact ego, the “soldierly” man's ersatz-ego is literally beaten into him through militaristic socialization from an early age, and is manifested in his erect stance, slick hair, and steely gaze, in his uniform, and the things with which he surrounds himself, particularly the “men.” Above all he must reject the female Other as a symbol of dissolution that threatens his armored self the moment it transgresses the private sphere (i.e., as a female that is not mother or wife). Like art, the feminine, whether in the form of a female body (the actual, social existence of woman) or in the form of an image (the role of the feminine, the erotic in art), needs to be contained, primarily through the family structure.

Paradoxically, this process applies to a female protagonist like Caroline Neuber as well once she enters the public sphere. Retrieval of self for Neuber likewise means surmounting her own female Otherness, particularly her female sexuality. While hardly a soldierly male, Neuber must likewise undergo a process of transcending “feminine” weakness. The Russian episode is the only one in the film in which Neuber's unfeminine behavior breaks down and she becomes “all woman,” and hence nearly abandons her historic mission. The episode is the crucial test that helps to fortify her inner self against alien influence, eroticism, and physicality (a necessary step reflecting the film's subtext of the war, which inaugurates a breakdown of the public-private division). Significantly, in her two scenes with the Duke, Neuber not only appears in lavish dresses emphasizing her womanly figure, but is stylized through framing and lighting as an object of desire. This contrasts with the less “feminine”—even slightly military—design of the clothing she wears in other scenes, such as her travel suit with buttons that recall an officer's jacket, or her rehearsal dress, which has a criss-cross pattern reminiscent of a soldier draped with an ammunition belt.

Like Nazi cinema's male geniuses, Neuber forgoes dissolution with an individual, private Other in favor of a fusion with the collective that is so essential to the National Socialist project. Through their art, which is in Lacanian terminology a contained objet a, individuals like Neuber and Schiller become historical figures who compensate or stand in for the People's lack, acting as the People's objet a. Yet Neuber's susceptibility to the temptation of dissolution is gender specific, again naturalized by the film as a woman's need—evoking in the spectator a response of relief and disappointment at Neuber's self-retrieval. In this sense, then, the film disavows the leader role it ascribes to Neuber, who, unlike male geniuses, must sort out competing voices within herself. As I will elaborate in the following section, Philine is a transitional figure who eases both the film's allegorical transference of woman from private to public, and the tension between the still privatized female spectator and the public woman.

Another gender-specific characteristic that separates Neuber from male artists is her coding as mother (although to be sure a number of older geniuses such as Paracelsus are father figures). Neuber, portrayed as fortyish and slightly buxom, serves throughout the film as a spiritual mother to her “family” of actors, who are repeatedly described as “a herd” in need of “a shepherd,” and develops a particular mother-daughter bond with the orphan Philine.12 The non-diegetic text opening the film already establishes Neuber's role as mother/teacher:

Caroline Neuber liberated the theater from the cheap obscenities [Zoten] of Hanswurst. Through hard labor she raised/educated [erzog] actors and spectators. Without Neuber our classic writers like Lessing, Schiller, and Goethe would have had found no theater to provide a worthy forum for their works.

As demonstrated by figures like Dorothea in Jew Süss, Franziska in Good-Bye, Franziska (Käutner, 1941), or Maria in Kolberg, woman is frequently a metaphor in Nazi cinema for Heimat, for roots and nurturance, which are set in narrative opposition to the alienation of aimless wandering. They assume this role because they are still confined to the private sphere and hence function as objet a for men constrained by the public sphere. Neuber adopts precisely this female role, only within the public (i.e., male) framework of the theater.

By suffering the exhaustion and humiliation of a vagabond life, she eventually legitimizes theater and provides both her actors and Germany's evolving (male) drama culture with a Heimat. Neuber's death scene visually underscores this nurturing role: she dies while leaning against the wheel of a cart in which she is forced to travel (forced to leave the private sphere), unaware of the historical legacy she will leave behind. At the moment of her death the camera travels down to focus on Johannes's brightly illuminated hand grasping hers; this scene then dissolves to a long shot of the newly founded German Theater. The chiaroscuro effects of the shot highlight Neuber's matronly bosom, and the subsequent dissolve virtually allows the building to evolve from her womb as her consummate child, with the windows of the building radiating the same bright light as her breast (i.e., “heart”). At the same time, the shot of her death is centered by the clasping hands, suggesting that a historical mission requires not only leadership, but the relentless fidelity of the follower (in this case Johannes, but by analogy, the People). Philine's final words dedicating the theater again encapsulate the themes of wandering vs. roots: “Caroline Neuberin! You were homeless [heimatlos], here is your home. You were without peace; here your bold spirit can rest. You never saw what you longed for, but in everything we create your restless longing shall be alive.” In suffering for the collective, Neuber fills in for the female spectator of the Third Reich who was slowly being forced out of the private sphere in early forties.


Neuber's co-protagonist, Philine (Hilde Krahl), stands in blatant contrast to Neuber by playing a much more traditional feminine role. The subplot involving Philine and the aristocrat Armin von Perckhammer reiterates the male-female (public-private) constellation of the bourgeois tragedy to which the film alludes constantly. Like the heroines of numerous 18th-century dramas, Philine is an object of desire for a variety of aristocratic males. For most of the film, she remains confined to the private sphere and the quest for “true love,” which, as in the bourgeois tragedy, is a paradigm for bourgeois, i.e., “human” virtue. In her beauty and “virtue” Philine recalls Lessing's Emilia Galotti or Goethe's Gretchen, as when a maid addresses her as “noble miss” (gnädiges Fräulein) and she responds that she is not of nobility (gnädig).

Yet while the story continuously thematizes Philine's innocence, the camera titillates the viewer by cinematically exhibiting her eroticism. Her passivity is suggested by the frequency with which she is viewed sitting, allowing the camera to “leer” down at her décolleté and voluptuous bosom. The film uses strategies typical of classical cinema, in which the heroine serves as erotic object for both the fictional characters and the spectator. Indeed, it puts the spectator in the ambiguous position of sympathizing with Philine as victim, yet enjoying both her suffering and especially the pleasure of seeing her softly illuminated body displayed and hearing her sensuous voice. While Neuber fills in for women emerging from the private sphere, Philine fills in both for men, in the traditional mode of dominant cinema (as object of desire), and for women in the sense proposed by Teresa de Lauretis. De Lauretis sees the female spectator caught in a double identification: with the masterful gaze of the male and with the object being looked at.13 Here a figure within the narrative, Philine takes on the dual position de Lauretis ascribes to the female spectator.

When Armin first encounters Philine, she provides a striking contrast to the promiscuous actress Viktorine, who disrobes in his presence. The first shot of Philine in the scene is preceded by her shocked off-screen voice (“Viktorine!”), which permits the spectator to “see” her with Armin as she sews—a domestic activity reminiscent of Gretchen's spinning.14 Corresponding to Laura Mulvey's original paradigm, in which “the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude,” over-the-shoulder shots enable the spectator to share Armin's look.15 These shots alternate with “objective,” unclaimed shots of both Armin and Philine. Nowhere at this point is Philine granted a subjectivity of her own from a cinematic perspective; only Armin possesses authoritative vision. When Philine makes her debut on Neuber's stage (and simultaneously her debut as spectacle for Armin in the subsequent scene), G. E. Lessing, a student and friend of Armin, raves about Neuber's artistic greatness, while Armin can only think of Philine's legs, exposed by her page costume. Their comments not only articulate the difference between the two men, but capture the contrast with which both camera and narrative will treat the two women. The words also link the artists Lessing and Neuber as transcending the physical, with Lessing always the observer of—never the participant in—human interaction.

Virtually every Nazi film set in the 18th century exploits the connotative appeal of the bourgeois tragedy and imitates the class coding of the genre, in which the aristocracy stands for egotism, intrigue, and exchange value, while the middle class stands for virtue, trust, and “love.” The genre is so useful to Nazism since its exclusion of an Other (the aristocracy and its concomitant value system) in the People's own history is a precondition for National Socialism's hypostatized unity of the People. However, Nazism redefines the gesture of exclusion in the bourgeois tragedy as an exclusion of a national (usually French) Other. This shift constitutes a fundamental reinterpretation of the bourgeois tragedy, since it transforms the latter's attempt to eliminate difference in favor of the universally human into a quest for homogeneity within the parameters of a defined order. In other words, although both the bourgeois tragedy and its Nazified versions represent a quest for “community,” in the latter, difference (class, political, racial) is eliminated only within the sphere of the “German” in order to fortify it against external elements (Überfremdung) or against racial pollution. While 18th-century bourgeois literature was international, the Nazi narrative remains firmly national. Moreover, the 18th-century notion of the universally human was oriented toward a distant future, while Nazism's social fantasy of a People is oriented toward the past (hence the tireless invocation of history). I have demonstrated elsewhere how Veit Harlan's Jew Süss (1940) strikingly refunctionalizes the bourgeois tragedy for antisemitic purposes, but the same point can be made for less “overtly” political films like Komödianten.16

A central element of the bourgeois tragedy exploited by the Philine-Armin story is the “high” Enlightenment motif of the heart's triumph over class division. The use of this motif permits gender difference to replace class difference: in the name of the universally human (das Allgemeinmenschliche), class difference is elided, but the woman continues to represent the private sphere, compensating for the alienation of public (male-centered) life. As in Schiller's Kabale und Liebe, contradictory forces hinder this transcendence of class division, typically in the form of aristocrats wielding money as a force of persuasion (reliably rejected by the heroes of the anticapitalist narrative) and resorting to intrigue when money fails. In Komödianten, a variety of concrete visual barriers suggest class division, such as the gate (marked by a conspicuous “X” design) to the prison where Philine is held, a victim of aristocratic intrigue; the gate which confines the “homely” cousin whom Armin refuses to marry in her aristocratic “prison”; and the massive gate to the Russian court. The first narrative obstacle to a union of the “heart” is Armin himself, whose social class determines his cocky, patronizing attitude toward women, at least toward those of a lower class.17 Like Mellefont in Lessing's Miss Sara Sampson, Armin acquires bourgeois virtue in the course of the narrative, discovering his “true” love for Philine and abandoning his lust for divertissement. He becomes an “aristocrat of the heart.” As in the bourgeois tragedy, there need be no explanation for his conversion to virtue beyond the claim that he is merely persuaded by the force of the “heart.”

In its quest for “community” Komödianten thus appears to valorize feeling, the cognitio intuitiva in Sentimentality, which is associated with the feminine and placed in narrative opposition to the dry rationalism of Gottsched and the vulgarity of Hanswurst. Neuber is the public spokeswoman for the “heart”; in the private sphere, Philine adopts this role. Philine's understanding through the “heart” transcends the discursive language of rationality, as Armin articulates when he says: “You have a fine ear; you hear things that one has not even said,” or: “Heaven made you more courageous than me and made your heart clearer than my understanding.” Philine is ultimately able to triumph over the aristocracy for whom “love is a business” because her “heart” accepts only “yes or no.” Furthermore, in keeping with the role accorded to both woman and art since the mid-18th century of compensating for the alienation of a rationalized existence, Philine seems to possess an intuitive reverence for genius. Despite her unfamiliarity with theater and art, Philine not only “feels” that Neuber “serves a great cause,” but she seems likewise to sense Lessing's greatness. When Armin introduces Lessing to the troupe as a budding writer, Philine alone is privileged with a close-up shot as she, characteristically captured by a high-angle shot and veritably glowing due to lighting effects, bursts out in awe: “Oh, you want to be a poet!” The use of the word poet (Dichter) is significant in that the film constantly contrasts terms suggesting the low contemporary status of theater art with terms valorizing “high,” autonomous art.

The film goes so far as to directly integrate famous Lessing phrases into the fiction. When Armin believes himself abandoned by Philine, he declares that he will participate in a military campaign “down in Turkey,” thus repeating Werner's phrase in Minna von Barnhelm. The motif of “calmness” (Ruhe, ruhig) so central to Emilia Galotti appears in Komödianten as well when, for instance, Neuber remarks to Philine that she is “so unnaturally calm.” Philine's response recalls the various stages with which Emilia achieves maturity: “You call this being calm, … suffering what one should not suffer, bearing what one should not have to bear. …” Most significant is Philine's quotation of the line “Pearls mean tears,” with which Emilia expresses intuitive fears about the future of the “community of the heart” she and Appiani have achieved. Several close-ups of Philine fondling a string of pearls visually underscore this motif. The Duchess attempts to bribe Philine with the pearls to leave Armin; hence pearls act as a direct vehicle for aristocratic efforts to uphold class division. The same pearls take on a different function at the end of the film, however, when Philine uses them to convince the Duchess of her sincere feelings for Armin, thus gaining a utopian perspective that is absent in Lessing's Emilia Galotti. Here the film merges allusions to Lessing with the political optimism of the early Schiller. Analogous to Friedrich Schiller's reliance on early Schiller drama, Komödianten thus blends “life” and canonized fiction to create a nostalgic pleasure in recognizing a history that never was. It thus again augments a mythified image of collective history in which spectators can mirror themselves and feel at least momentarily compensated for “real” life through the aesthetic or through a great collective past.

In addition, the film's exploitation of literary allusions reflects the “achieved” establishment or containment of the aesthetic as a quasi-autonomous sphere in modern societies, which compensates for the agonistic struggles and alienation of everyday life.18 This compensatory function is disguised, however, since the film (and Western culture in general) mythifies autonomous art as value. As the Other of the modern experience, it connotes the feminine and provides a site for decentering experiences. Yet as such, autonomous art has to be contained because a victory of this (feminine) principle in society would undermine the balance between real-life delimitations and imaginary dissolution on which modern societies rely. Philine comes to symbolize the establishment of a contained realm of autonomous art toward the end of the film when she begins to adopt the non-feminine attitudes of her surrogate mother, Neuber. After the Duchess is finally reconciled to the union of Armin and Philine, i.e., after the class obstacle has been surmounted, Philine declares, as Neuber had earlier, that she must choose her art over love. She thus becomes in effect Neuber's functional double. Like Neuber, Philine transcends both social class and the private sphere through art, emerging as both wife and coalition partner: Armin becomes administrative director; Philine, artistic director of the theater that realizes Neuber's dream. Reflecting the film's subtext of 1941, the domesticated woman undergoes a transition from private to public, from Philine to Neuber. Philine's transition is the condition for the film's imaginary reconciliation not only between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, the private and the public, but between the feminine principle contained in art and the masculine principle of rational delimitation—taken together a coalition that provides the basis for the organization of society. Lessing best characterizes Philine's narrative evolution when he chastizes Armin: “You think you have to condescend to Philine. You don't see that she stands beside you, ennobled by her art.” I will return to Philine's Bildungsroman-style transformation later.


The film's third “unfeminine” woman is Duchess Amalia of Weissenfels (Henny Porten), Armin's aunt and Neuber's Maecenas. She is the central force to insist on the domination of class over heart, speaking of marriage as an institution of Staatsraison rather than of love: “Persons of standing are not asked whether they like their marriage partner.” She demands that the artists performing at her court stay within their “boundaries” and resists Neuber's claim to be the equal of any aristocrat through her art. Before the Duchess appears, a large painting of her in Armin's palace announces her imposing presence. Her own chambers are surrounded by large portraits of Weissenfels ancestors which provide a formidable backdrop against which figures like Neuber and Philine fight for recognition. When, for example, Philine finally confronts the Duchess personally, she is positioned directly between two aristocratic portraits which again visually reproduce the notion of class barrier.

What distinguishes the Duchess most fully from other comparable female figures is her extremely masculine physical coding. In a sense, the Duchess as a political leader displays the most “unfeminine” behavior possible. She wears an ensemble clearly emulating the style of a military jacket (Armin is a lieutenant in her retinue), pinches snuff, and her demeanor is characterized by “decisive” male gestures, much like a stereotypic Prussian officer. The significance of military allusions within Nazi ideology can scarcely be overemphasized, yet it is equally obvious that the military is a male domain.19 Hence the film reveals the Duchess's extreme masculinity to be a facade, a body-armor erected to repress her “natural” female characteristics. Underneath the body-armor suggested in her “uniform” look, she, like Armin, is an “aristocrat of the heart.” Just as Armin's transformation from “playboy” to “aristocrat of the heart” needs no rational explanation within the film's value system, neither does the change in the Duchess. She merely “hears” truth when she meets Philine, whose words provoke the Duchess to utter a series of uncharacteristic Sentimental (empfindsame) evaluations: “In your words a pure heart beats. You speak the truth.”

The encounter between Philine and the Duchess toward the end of the film articulates the new leader status assumed by women. This scene unites and reconciles the three strong women through the presence of the Duchess and Philine and the absence of the (mythic) Caroline Neuber:

[refering to Neuber] A great woman, who had the stuff to be a great man!
Stop! Neuber should remain a woman [Weibsbild] and prove what we women are capable of!

Ironically, it is in this scene, when the Duchess articulates the potential of women, that she first wears a strikingly low-cut dress herself, underscoring her own femininity and contrasting sharply with the military ensemble of her first appearance. Yet, the dress accords with her turn to Sentimentality, and thus complements the scene's verbal content. Philine, on the other hand, appears in a very “professional” ensemble with a black jacket and a lace jabot, not unlike men's clothing at the time and clearly in contrast to the décolleté of her earlier clothing. In another reversal of classical cinema's predilection for objectifying woman as framed icon, Philine briefly fondles a miniature portrait of Armin she finds while waiting in the Duchess's palace. Philine's transformed appearance prepares her narrative transformation; she informs Armin in this scene that she has chosen the stage over marriage to him. With her declaration, “I have already chosen the stage and must remain faithful to it,” she echoes Neuber's frequent comparison of the theater to the lover. Armin, injured by a “Turkish bullet,” appears in this scene, with his arm in a sling, as a castrated man forced to forfeit his earlier power over Philine. Through marriage, which Laura Mulvey has discussed as an important aspect of narrative closure that ensures the characters' social integration, both Philine and Armin find their societal niche, and Armin relinquishes his “narcissistic omnipotence.”20 Yet unlike the classical narrative model, Philine does not retreat into the oblivion of married property, but emerges as dominant in the closing dialogue and frames, which position her in the center of the image from an authoritative low angle as she appropriates Neuber's motto “further! further!” Armin stands decidedly at the periphery of the frame, in soft focus, and Johannes is absent in the film's last scene.

In the final shots Philine in effect becomes Caroline Neuber, while Neuber herself achieves the status of myth; she has been disembodied and transformed into an icon. As Philine dedicates the theater to Neuber, her back faces the camera with an engraved relief of Neuber's head visible in the distance. Like the relief, Philine's figure is framed by a door. The frames surrounding both figures suggest not confinement, but the historical inscription of their achievements. The composition renders Philine, who appears quasi-transcendent in a scintillating white gown, a metonymic extension of the canonized Neuber, while permitting the spectator to share her reverent gaze. The shot thus accords to Philine the authoritative look heretofore denied her. The film thereby completes the transition in which the female spectator can vicariously participate. The scene's aura of religious veneration, augmented by organ music, intensifies as Philine proceeds to the interior of the theater, where she again acts as surrogate viewer for the spectator. Philine continues speaking to Neuber, who has become the theater in the sense that it, in the Duchess's words, is “pervaded by Neuberin's creative breath.” A long shot of the theater, with Philine glowing from a balcony that elevates her as if on a pedestal, represents Neuber's posthumous affirmation of her spiritual successor. The scene recalls Schiller's triumph at the Mannheim theater in Friedrich Schiller. In both scenes, theater serves as a receptacle, a “womb” that nurtures a German culture in which the spectator, here occupying the space of an absent public, can revel in his or her cultural identity. By this point in Komödianten's narrative, a leader/mass distinction in which either gender is capable of assuming the leadership role has overshadowed the gender distinction. Gender has not been replaced but displaced, a displacement made possible specifically by the immediate demands of war, and more generally by modernity's institutionalization of the aesthetic as a stand-in for lack. Here the film slips structurally between the traditionally separate spheres of the aesthetic and political, as Neuber is infused with both the power of the aesthetic and the political power of a leader. The fusion of these two positions into one figure gives her a status as objet a analogous to that of Schiller and other geniuses of Nazi cinema.


How—given the role of woman under National Socialism—can one anchor the social and historical triumph of woman depicted in the woman-as-leader figure in Komödianten? I do not believe this figure signifies a fundamental rupture in Nazism's subordination of the feminine to the masculine, nor the personal influence of Pabst, but a limited deviation from the domestication of women propagated by Nazi policies. World War II is an important subtext to the film (although unfortunately much scholarship on Nazi film never considers anything but the subtext), especially in 1941 when the involvement of Britain and the U.S. in the war began to make ever heavier demands on Germany's military. Many historians have pointed out the contradictions of women's position in Nazi Germany.21 Early social policies aimed at removing women from the work force and promoting motherhood, which was rewarded by social benefits as well as by a hierarchy of medals bestowed upon prolific childbearing women. Nevertheless, the Nazis were never able to stop the trends toward small families (and a high illegal abortion rate) and the participation of women in the workplace. Even between 1933 and 1938 the number of working women rose from 4.24 to 5.2 million.22 As the war progressed economic demands opened up new employment opportunities and generated changing attitudes toward women, who were employed increasingly in heavy labor. In 1941 Hitler spoke of the “additional contribution” women can make: “millions of German women are in the country on the fields, and need to replace men in the most laborious work. Millions of German women and girls are working in factories, workshops and offices, and measure up to men there, too [stellen auch auch dort ihren Mann].”23 These were to serve as a “model” to other women. By 1943, Goebbels went so far as to state his conviction that “… the German woman is resolutely determined to quickly fill out the space left by the man who has gone to the front not only half way, but all the way.24 Goebbels cautiously assures in his speech that Germany “need not rely on the bolshevist example,” thus implying the boundaries of the changed status of women. While it called upon women to sacrifice glamor and leisure to the war economy, Nazi Germany would never hide behind women's skirts—a metaphor Theweleit analyzes as embodying the fear of “dissipating, contagious lust,” linking the “red flood” with bolshevism (a fear which Komödianten's Russian episode reflects).25

Komödianten's focus on strong women seems less incongruous in light of these developments; it reflects the anticipation that women will necessarily assume an ever larger public role due to the involvement of the male population in the war. Indeed, cinema audiences in the last years of the Third Reich were largely female. Considering the ideological fortification provided by the male genius films made in the same years, it hardly seems surprising that some should be aimed at the mobilization of women. Seen from this perspective, the appearance in Komödianten of women dressed in clothing suggestive of the military uniform, as well as the lack of imposing “soldierly” men, gains a new significance.26 The visual codification of the “public” woman with her masculine features ensures that the “public” service of a female is seen as the exception in times of need—for example, during war. The film's mirror image of existing social relations, in which women usurp the various roles played by men, also undermines attempts at a nostalgic feminist reading of the film. Ignoring for a moment developments within the characters, all components of social organization in Komödianten are represented by women: the Duchess as upholder of class hierarchy, Neuber as embodiment of cultural progress, Philine as representative of private harmony. Because the forces of community, alienation, and class are all embodied by females, the issue of gender in the film recedes, as suggested earlier, in favor of other concerns.

The absence of male leaders in Komödianten allows women to become the models to which Hitler appealed. Neuber's death in destitution may serve as such a model, preparing women for an analogous death for a “great cause” in accordance with the self-effacing tradition of motherhood. Like the mother of Theweleit's “soldierly man,” she becomes an “example for me of the belief that there is nothing so hard that it cannot be endured!”27 The film's implicit interpellation is analogous to the cover of the 1 April 1940 edition of the Nazi magazine Frauen Warte (Woman's Watchtower), which features a sketch of a peasant woman driving a plough against a background of factory smokestacks, above which hovers the superdimensional but transparent portrait of a soldier's head. The cover clearly depicts in iconic form the spiritual dominance of the absent male that both necessitates and fortifies the female labor under National Socialism. Komödianten synthesizes this ideological mobilization with elements of what Hitchcock termed the “novelette” with reference to his own Rebecca: an “old-fashioned” story from the “school of feminine literature.”28 The Harlequin-romance style of both the Philine subplot and the Russian episode were presumably designed to appeal to a female audience, allowing the film to work on the level of fantasy as well as ideology.



I would like to return to the film text to show how in its appropriation of 18th-century cultural history, Komödianten again undermines a feminist reading. In assuming its aesthetic position the film relies on a second, historically seminal triad, Gottsched-Neuber-Lessing, which reinstates gender as a social-historical category. Komödianten reshuffles 18th-century cultural history, transforming the early Enlightenment's struggle for bourgeois aesthetic forms (ca. 1730s) into a “high” Enlightenment debate between rationality and the “heart” (ca. 1770s-1780s). Besides preempting the chronological development of this debate (displacing it from the second to the first half of the century), the film condenses the debate in the narrative struggle between Neuber and Gottsched. The historical Neuber was indeed instrumental in reforming the status of theater, which was crucial to the institution of a bourgeois vs. a courtly art form. But as Gottsched's contemporary and collaborator, she predated Sentimentality's stress on affective art. The film translates their historical coalition for the institutionalization of a genre into an ahistorical, personal conflict, in which Neuber represents the position that Schiller takes in Maisch's film: she defends the “heart,” which is infused with a Nazified notion of community. By allowing a woman to serve as its central defender of the heart, of the community in defiance of mechanistic rationalism, Komödianten valorizes the feminine as a principle that encompasses the affective, the intuitive, the space of dissolution in the “dark” realm of the aesthetic. This celebration of the feminine is mediated, though, by the film's integration of the third member of the triad. While Gottsched as a male represents an adversarial rationalism that Neuber as a female must surmount, in order to achieve her historical mission Neuber must depend on another male, embodied in her spiritual offspring Lessing. In its historical dimension then, Komödianten at once exalts the feminine and depicts its limitations. While powerful as a principle of aesthetic dissolution, representing the loss of boundaries essential to a community of the “heart,” the feminine as the beautiful is always subject to the sublime, which amounts to phallic mastery (even if both are valorized as essential components of art).

In its strategy of transforming a diachronic constellation into a synchronic, gender-based one, Komödianten resorts to several historical distortions; i.e., it surrenders chronology to ideology. First, the film lends a xenophobic dimension to the respective aesthetic positions (as it did to courtly art in the figure of the Duke), since the Gottsched/Neuber debate is also articulated in terms of a competition between French and German drama. The fact that the figures representing the “heart,” Neuber and the young Lessing (whose aim is to write “real German” dramas for Neuber's theater), simultaneously fight for the “German” over the “French” posits the “German” as the People replacing the universally human, just as Sentimentality posited the bourgeois, the “heart,” as universally human. The film's opposition of German/Neuber/Lessing (whose mother/son relationship also suggests “family”) to French/Gottsched (who appears childless, seemingly impotent) is all the more fanciful given Lessing's actual rejection of Gottsched's French (aristocratic) dramatic model in favor of an English (bourgeois) rather than a German model. Indeed, the fear of the foreign which the film ascribes to Lessing was a historical product of the 19th, not the 18th century.

Second, the age of the adversaries is likewise adjusted in accordance with their aesthetic position. Although Gottsched, born in 1700, was three years younger than Neuber, he appears in the film as a bald old man, considerably her senior. The age difference between Gottsched and Neuber stands metaphorically for the old being superseded by the new, in this case early Enlightenment, the logocentric, being superseded by Sentimentality (albeit about 30 years too early and using somewhat incorrect figures). Not only does the film render Gottsched old and outdated with his “scissors and paste” adaptation of a foreign drama, Sterbender Cato (1730), but it depicts his attitude toward the public as one of arrogance toward “dull, stolid masses,” whereas historically his condemnation of the masses' lack of taste was based on a (for its time) progressive faith in the ability of education to improve that taste. When Gottsched remarks in the film that “Theater is not the mirror of life. Life is filthy, only art is pure,” he is at odds with the historical Gottsched's vision of art as a medium that could directly influence “life” for the better. Art as an autonomous sphere in itself would have had no legitimation for Gottsched; the words this film puts in his mouth would better suit a Novalis or a Schlegel.

Neuber's defense of the People's intuitive appreciation of art intermingles the discourse of late 18th-century aestheticians with Nazi Volk rhetoric, insinuating, like Friedrich Schiller, that aesthetic instinct cannot be taught rationally.29 Again recalling Maisch's film, Neuber describes her art as an articulation of the People: “they sit down there and wait for you to illuminate their dark feeling, to sharpen their dull thoughts, to let their silent mouth speak the words it couldn't form until then. Through us, through the stage the Volk speaks to itself, to the world. I want the mute Germany to begin to speak.” The idea that “speaking” is not only achieved discursively, but also through the “heart,” which is always already present outside of discourse as “dark feeling,” recalls the valorization of cognitio intuitiva by figures like Baumgarten and Lessing. Similarly, Neuber recalls thinkers like J. M. von Loen in her defense of the elision of class distinctions through art: “No one can express nobility who is not noble himself or portray the sublime if he has not the sublime within him. … The great artist is himself a high aristocrat.”30 From a historical perspective, these ideas should go hand in hand with the institutionalization of art as a medium for “practicing” the disposition of sympathy and virtue, rather than as a medium that could be dispensed with once society had received its (rational) message. This notion of art exercising a general disposition was an important component in the development from early Enlightenment to Sentimentality.31

If Neuber predates Sentimentality, in Lessing at least the film finds a historical representative of the development—though not this early in his career, when he was roughly four or five years of age. This collapsing of decades underlies the film's most amusing anachronism; at its conclusion after Neuber's death, Lessing appears with a new drama written for her, Emilia Galotti. Since Neuber stopped performing in 1750 and died in 1760 (which is also confused, since the film seems to erase this 10-year gap and to locate her death shortly after the St. Petersburg appearance, which occurred in 1740), it gives pause that a drama published in 1772 makes its way onto her stage. If it is off-balance chronologically, Emilia Galotti fits in ideologically, because it represents the “high” Enlightenment position with which the film as a whole aligns itself, as exemplified by the Philine narrative. Following a classic/romantic conception of art transcending life, Lessing bases his drama on Philine's “tragic destiny” and allows her remark “Pearls mean tears,” which he overhears, to find its way into his manuscript—thus the film transforms its quotation of Lessing's famous line instead into the source of the phrase. Woman's value seems thus dependent on her disembodiment; she inspires but hardly creates autonomous art:

You speak as though you loved her!
No—Yes! I love a shadow of her, more glowing than the live person. An image [Abbild] more blooming than the source [Bild]. … If I am successful, her destiny will become eternal destiny!

The portrayal of Sterbender Cato (1730) and Emilia Galotti (1772) as nearly contemporary dramas transfers a historical development that took some 40 years onto a synchronic level, rendering the rationality/“heart” debate more easily graspable. It is fun and comforting for the spectator to see a series of important events and people all wrapped up in a neat narrative package. This blending of biography and fiction lends the illusion of having understood what an epoch was all about, not to mention knowing who the “real” Emilia Galotti was. The subsumption of a great cultural heritage in a “meaningful” narrative explains and enhances the end result of that development: the mystification of art and genius.

Although Lessing's role within the narrative is peripheral (as a sidekick to Armin, a sympathetic observer of events, a fan of Neuber), his presence gains immensely in ideological significance within the film's hierarchical ordering of achievement. His presence on the sidelines as the “real” genius reminds us of the boundaries of the feminine. As forcefully as Komödianten demonstrates Lessing's dependency on Neuber's spiritual nurturance, it insists that Neuber is dependent on Lessing as well, although not necessarily on him personally. As the male writer, Lessing provides the “sperm”—the written word of creative genius that fertilizes Neuber's merely reproductive gift—just as the film's opening text promises. Komödianten implies that without this mating with the male, creative genius, Neuber's efforts would have been futile and the German stage would still be a hollow shell. As an actress, Neuber represents Sentimentality's valorization of the aesthetic, of the expression of feeling, both of which require traditional “feminine” traits of emotion and sensitivity. The film thus corroborates Alfred Rosenberg's remark that woman is “lyrical” by contrast to man who is “inventive, forming [gestaltend, architektonisch] and synthetic [zusammenfassend, synthetisch].”32 Neuber's historical contribution remains within the “feminine” sphere of the intuitive and affective: “the theater in bourgeois society was one of the few spaces which allowed women a prime space in the arts, precisely because acting was seen as imitative and reproductive, rather than original and productive.”33 Hence, only Lessing is privileged by the kind of stylized framing commonly employed in the “genius” films to visualize the inspirational act, as when he appears at a desk discussing his attempts to capture Philine in fiction. The scene is foregrounded by the diagonal line of the room's wall, and light streams through the window behind him as if to illuminate his creative impetus.

Komödianten thus surreptitiously restores the belief that it is indeed men who “make history”—even within art—and that while females may be indispensable, they remain but nurturers. For all its role reversals, the film's tribute to a woman's historical role thus exemplifies Hitler's comment, “when I acknowledge Treitschke's statement that men make history, I'm not forgetting that it's women who raise our boys to be men.”34 The limitation of Neuber's historical role is already implicit in the film's primary thematization of the institutionalization of art, rather than a stylistic or political content. This focus is contained in the title Komödianten, which refers to 17th- and 18th-century traveling artists' troupes, the historical successors of the comedia dell'arte, who were excluded from respectable society. This non-status gains leitmotif character in the film, with Lessing praising Gottsched for even mentioning theater in the university, the Duchess insisting that actresses can only serve for personal “plaisir,” or Neuber warning Philine that actresses are “more disdained than bums and thieves.” Neuber's historical feat is not one of productive genius, but a liberation of the institution of theater from earlier, courtly dramatic forms, a founding of Heimat. Hence the film constantly juxtaposes terms (often French) associated with the older institution of theater (Komödiant or Actrice/Acteur) with terms valorizing the genre, such as “artist” (Künstler) and “poet” (Dichter).

The celebration of historical models, male or female, was part of Nazism's consistent strategy of invoking history while suppressing any critical dialogue with it. The narrativization of Germany's historical heritage made it easier to grasp, allowing for the conscious or unconscious internalization of a normative set of values. Even where a Nazi film permits gender boundaries to gain an ambiguous dimension as does Komödianten, it never ceases to reinforce submission to the authoritative individual; it promotes the leader as the most genuine, most successful fill-in for the collective void. While conceding that—under certain conditions—women may assume a public role, the film affirms at once the Führer principle and the predominance of male creativity. Thus, Komödianten provides another example of Nazism's reorganization of history as narrative—a compensatory reorganization addressing the needs of the present.


  1. Anke Gleber, “Das Fräulein von Teilheim: Die ideologische Funktion der Frau in der nationalsozialistischen Lessing-Adaption,” German Quarterly 59.4 (Fall 1986): 547-568; Verena Leuken, “Zur Erzählstruktur des nationalsozialistischen Films,” MuK 13 (Veröffentlichung des Forschungsschwerpunkts Massenmedien und Kommunikation an der Universität Siegen, 1981); Karsten Witte, “Visual Pleasure Inhibited: Aspects of the German Revue Film,” New German Critique 24-25 (Fall/Winter 1981-2): 238-263, especially 253-59.

  2. Leander often portrayed professional women, usually singers who forfeit their career for love and/or domesticity; cf. Zu neuen Ufern (1937), Heimat (1938), and especially Die grosse Liebe (1940). See also the many articles on women in Nazi film in Frauen und Film, issues e.g. 14 (December 1977), 38 (May 1985), 44/45 (October 1988).

  3. Quoted in Wulf Wülfing, “Die heilige Luise von Preussen. Zur Mythisierung einer Figur der Geschichte in der deutschen Literatur des 19. Jahrhunderts,” Bewegung und Stillstand in Metaphern und Mythen (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1984) 272.

  4. Silvia Bovenschen, Die imaginierte Weiblichkeit. Exemplarische Untersuchungen zu kulturgeschichtlichen und literarischen Präsentationsformen des Weiblichen (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1979).

  5. In his sociological study of Nazi film, Gerd Albrecht discusses the relative infrequency with which the marital status of the male protagonist is even disclosed in what he calls “P-films” (films with a political function), while the marital status of females is always a central issue, reflecting woman's confinement to the private sphere. Nationalsozialistische Filmpolitik (Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke, 1969) 147-154.

  6. Cf. the juxtaposition of the feminized vs. the “natural” male in The Scarlet Pimpernel, as well as in the Zorro or Superman films.

  7. The film's (and Johannes's) acceptance of Neuber's infidelity again breaks with the norms of the Nazi film narrative, which normally punishes the adulterous female at the least with guilt (cf. Harlan's Das unsterbliche Herz [1939], in which Peter Henlein's young wife feels guilty for her attraction to a younger man), but more typically with intense suffering or death (cf. Gründgens's Der Schritt vom Wege [1939], based on Fontane's Effi Briest; Willi Forst's Mazurka [1935], in which a woman falsely accused of infidelity loses her husband and daughter; or Käutner's Romanze in Moll [1942]). This is not to say that female infidelity is not occasionally portrayed with considerable sympathy, but only that the erotic titillation achieved by the theme is contained by the ultimate price paid by the female protagonist. Cf. also Goebbel's justification for having changed the ending of the original script of Opfergang (1944) in such a way as to spare the life of the adulterous husband: “The adulterous wife must die and not the husband,” quoted in Francis Courtade and Pierre Cadars, Geschichte des Films im dritten Reich, trans. Florian Hopf (Munich/Vienna: Carl Hanser, 1975).

  8. In an interesting recent reading of the film, Anke Gleber points out affinities between the Duke's remark and “ideological assumptions behind Nazi film.” See “Masochism and Wartime Melodrama: Komödianten (1941),” The Films of G. W. Pabst: An Extraterritorial Cinema, ed. Eric Rentschler (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1990) 181. While the Duke's remarks indeed display a striking congruence with the Nazi project, it is important to note that the subject position created by the film rejects his cynicism in favor of Neuber's “Völkisch” stance.

  9. I am using the term social fantasy as it has been introduced by Slavoj Zizek, as fantasy “invented” by a society to mask the impossibility of its posited utopian ideal: “At the stake of social-ideological fantasy is to construct a vision of society which does exist, a society which is not split by an antagonistic division, a society in which the relation between its parts is organic, complementary.” The Sublime Object of Ideology (London and New York: Verso, 1989) 126. For Nazism the supreme social fantasy is the “Jew,” who provides a positive embodiment of social negativity, fostering the illusion that eradication of the “Jew” will result in social harmony.

  10. Cf. the visual relief to the massive, overpowering studio sets of the Russian sequence provided by Germany's “fresh air” in the subsequent sequence when the troupe returns home and is forced to perform outside. I am aware of the apparent contradiction between my reading of monumentalism in the Russian set as negative and Nazism's well-known endorsement of monumentalism in art and architecture. I know of no Nazi film, however, in which a grandiose, massive scale in an interior, private setting is associated with “positive” figures. Rather, grand-scale interiors tend to characterize the lifestyle of the self-aggrandizing and materialistic (the huge chest opened in Komödianten's Russian sequence to reveal lavish costumes recalls the chest in which Süss Oppenheimer hides his wealth in Veit Harlan's 1940 film Jew Süss. In both cases the chests suggest excess and materialistic values). The grandiosity of Nazi art by contrast celebrates either the alleged perfection of the German race, or an embodiment of the Nazi state (which is by definition seen as a pure expression of the Volk), but remains confined to an exterior, public sphere. The collision of interiority and monumentality in Nazi cinema tends to disrupt the nurturance of the private sphere, ensured by a feminine presence.

  11. Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, trans. Steven Conway, vol. 1 (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987). This is not to deny that Neuber's near dissolution is a source of pleasure to the (presumably female) spectator of 1941. On one level, then, the termination of the relationship elicits a sense of disappointment by denying the female spectator the Duke as an object of desire.

  12. In the very first scene of the film Neuber appears on stage as Medea, lamenting the impending death of her daughter, who leans on her shoulder for support much as Philine will later in the film. Indeed, the lines Neuber recites prefigure her role as mother as well as the artist's “path of suffering” so central to the genius genre: “I gave many children life; death took many children from me. Sorrow heaps upon sorrow; a mountain of pain suffocates my heart.”

  13. Teresa de Lauretis, “Desire in Narrative,” Alice Doesn't (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984) 103-157, especially 123. In remarking on precisely the tension between sympathy for and enjoyment of Philine's suffering, Anka Gleber repeatedly posits a disconcertingly clear-cut division between male and female spectators. Cf., for example, “Clearly, Philine's pain evokes identification in the female spectator. Simultaneously, the male spectator can readily align himself with the camera's explorations of Philine's face and figure” (177). While I agree with the conflicting reactions Gleber addresses, her ascription of reactions to individual genders oversimplifies the complexity of spectator response acknowledged in feminist scholarship today.

  14. Cf. Miriam Hansen's discussion of the importance of the male hero initiating the gaze in classical cinema, and of how being looked at (vs. looking) serves as an indicator of a female's virtue; Miriam Hansen, “Pleasure, Ambivalence, Identification: Valentino and Female Spectatorship,” Cinema Journal 25.4 (Summer 1986): 11-12.

  15. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975): 19.

  16. Linda Schulte-Sasse, “The Jew as Other under National Socialism: Veit Harlan's Jud Süss (1940),” German Quarterly 61.1 (Winter 1968): 22-49.

  17. As in 18th-century dramas, particularly Schiller's Kabale und Liebe,Komödianten thematizes the issue of trust, especially when Armin's uncle persuades Philine that Armin is engaged to a woman of his own class. Philine possesses the absolute security of feeling characteristic of such figures as Luise Miller, thus initially refusing to believe Armin capable of leaving her. Yet like Ferdinand, whose aristocratic socialization permits him to more readily believe the falsified letter portraying Luise as promiscuous, Armin readily falls for the intrigue and castigates Philine as fickle. Both male figures have grown accustomed to hypocrisy and promiscuity through their aristocratic context.

  18. See Jochen Schulte-Sasse, “Literarische Wertung: Zum unausweichlichen historischen Verfall einer literaturkritischen Praxis,” Lili 18.71 (1988): 13-47.

  19. See Theweleit's Male Fantasies, or Karl Prumm, Die Literatur des soldatischen Nationalismus der zwanziger Jahre (1918-1933) (Kronberg/Ts: Scriptor, 1974).

  20. Laura Mulvey, “Afterthoughts inspired by Duel in the Sun,” Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989) 33-34.

  21. See, for example, Renate Wiggershaus, Frauen unterm Nationalsozialismus (Wuppertal: Peter Hammer, 1984); Annette Kuhn and Valentine Rothe, Frauen im deutschen Faschismus (Düsseldorf: Schwann, 1983) 2 vols; Claudia Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, The Family, and Nazi Politics (New York: St. Martin's, 1987); David Schoenbaum, Hitler's Social Revolution. Class and Status in Nazi Germany 1933-39 (New York: Norton, 1980) esp. “The Third Reich and Women” 178-192.

  22. Schoenbaum 185.

  23. Quoted from a speech given by Hitler on 4 May 1941 to the Reichstag; reprinted in Kuhn and Rothe 117.

  24. From Goebbel's speech on 18 February 1943 at a NSDAP rally in the Berlin Sport Palace; quoted in Wiggershaus 27.

  25. Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, trans. Erica Carter and Chris Turner, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989) 27-35.

  26. Karen Ellwanger and Eva-Maria Warth's excellent reading of the film The Woman of my Dreams (Die Frau meiner Träume, 1943) regards the protagonist's manipulation of her own image through clothing as a sign of emancipation, warning against the “ahistorical” tendency of some feminist scholarship to regard all Nazi films under a one-dimensional perspective of the image of woman propagated in the thirties, thus ignoring “changed social reality of the forties with its modified role expectations for women.” “Die Frau meiner Träume. Weiblichkeit und Maskerade: eine Untersuchung zu Form und Funktion von Kleidung als Zeichensystem im Film,” Frauen und Film 38 (May 1985): 67.

  27. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, Mein Leben (Bilderbach a.d. Riss, 1957) 58ff; quoted in Theweleit, vol. 1, 102.

  28. See Tanja Modleski's discussion of how Hitchcock dismisses Rebecca based on its genre tradition in The Women Who Knew Too Much. Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (New York: Methuen, 1988) 43-55.

  29. In a transparent reference to National Socialist biologism, Schiller insists in an argument with the Duke of Württemburg that genius can only be “born,” never “trained.” Cf. Linda Schulte-Sasse, “National Socialism's Aestheticization of Genius. The Case of Herbert Maisch's Friedrich Schiller—Triumph eines Genies,” forthcoming in Germanic Review's special film edition, 1990.

  30. Cf. von Loen's Aristocracy: “[Virtue] alone is of noble birth, because it stems from heaven. … This nobility is possessed by all pious and wise people” (Ulm 1752); quoted in Jochen Schulte-Sasse, Literarische Struktur und historisch-sozialer Kontext: Zum Beispiel Lessings “Emilia Galotti” (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1975) 23.

  31. See Jochen Schulte-Sasse, ed., Briefwechsel über das Trauerspiel: Lessing, Nicolai, Mendelssohn (Munich: Winkler, 1972) especially 52-57, 76-85, and 207-215.

  32. Alfred Rosenberg, Der Mythos des 20, Jahrhunderts (Munich: Hoheneichen Verlag, 1930) 508. Nazi cinema's portrayals of such “inventive” spirits focus on male biographies, as in Andreas Schlüter (architecture), Diesel (technology), Paracelsus,Robert Koch, or Steinhoff's Der Volksfeind (medicine).

  33. Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's Other,” After the Great Divide (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986) 51.

  34. From Hitler's speech opening the exhibit “Die Frau” on 18 March 1933; quoted in Wiggershaus 15.

Thomas Elsaesser (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Elsaesser, Thomas. “Transparent Duplicities: The Threepenny Opera (1931).” In The Films of G. W. Pabst: An Extraterritorial Cinema, edited by Eric Rentschler, pp. 103-15. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Elsaesser argues in favor of The Threepenny Opera's merits as a great achievement in Weimar cinema despite a lawsuit filed against Pabst by Bertolt Brecht—the author of the opera upon which Pabst's film is based.]


To write about Pabst's The Threepenny Opera (Die 3-Groschen-Oper, 1931) is to venture into a minefield of received opinions. Even if one sidesteps the boobytraps of literary adaptations and refrains from debating the faithfulness of filmed classics, one ends up frying on the barbed wire of Bertolt Brecht's powerfully polemical defense of his intellectual property in The Threepenny Trial (Der Dreigroschenprozess). Finally, Pabst's ambivalent role within the Nazi film industry seems to weigh the arguments in favor of assuming that the filmmaker had necessarily “betrayed” Brecht.1 Any assessment of the film in its own right is therefore likely to be seen as a case of special pleading. But since the film is most often discussed in the context of Brecht,2 I propose to dispose as quickly as possible of the question of the lawsuit and the circumstances of the production. Instead, I want to concentrate on whether, in light of the film itself, Pabst's approach to the material has a coherence of its own. This should allow some conclusions about Pabst, and also put the case of The Threepenny Opera for being considered a major work of Weimar Cinema.


On the merits of the lawsuit and trial, commentators usually attend to Brecht's version. This seems reasonable, especially since his purpose in writing up his experiences with the film industry are interesting for two reasons. First, it will be remembered that Brecht, from about 1928 onwards, was practicing what one might call a strategy of cultural intervention, wanting to make his presence felt in virtually every debate and through every existing medium of artistic production. Brecht, in Walter Benjamin's words, sought “never to supply the apparatus without trying to change it.”3 Not only did he work in the theater, he wrote radio plays, participated in musical life through his collaborations with Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, and Hanns Eisler. He was active in proletarian associations such as the Rote Wedding and wrote learning plays for factories and workers' clubs. He involved himself in filmmaking via Prometheus Film, and with Slatan Dudow and Eisler made Kuhle Wampe.4 For the theater he wrote such different plays for such different publics (or non-publics) as The Mother (Die Mutter) and St. Joan of the Stockyards (Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe). All this made the years between 1928 and 1933 among the most productive of his life.5The Threepenny Trial must be seen in this context.

Second, Brecht (who lost his case—whereas Weill accepted an out-of-court settlement and did rather well financially) was able to take the legal debate onto the high ground of political theory and ideological critique. By focusing on the contradictions between bourgeois notions of artistic autonomy, on the one hand, and capitalist notions of property, on the other, Brecht demonstrated that bourgeois law, though called upon to defend intellectual rights of ownership, cannot in practice legislate against a material concept of ownership, even if this leaves bourgeois ideology in tatters as a result.6 Since Brecht believed neither in artistic autonomy nor in the capitalist mode of production, he could claim to have instigated the lawsuit in order for the system to reveal its own contradictions: hence the subtitle “Sociological Experiment,” a prime example of Brecht's “interventionist thinking (eingreifendes Denken).”7The Threepenny Trial was a sociological experiment not only about individual authorship under capitalism, but a materialist account of how the structure of the film industry itself determines the nature of the products.

Pabst, in an interview with A. Kraszna-Krausz (not quoted as often as Brecht) given on becoming the Head of Dacho (the independent union of German film-workers), implicitly comments on the controversy and points to one of the historical reasons for the ambivalent position of the creative personnel in filmmaking: “A process [of production developed during stormy commercial prosperity means that] the originators of mental-creative work were (and are) not able to decide sufficiently for themselves. They are used as material nearly always.” Pabst is here astutely political, especially when he goes on to make the case not only on behalf of (relatively privileged) writers, but of others active in the industry, including technicians. Pabst stressed, for instance, the importance of unionization. He concluded: “The social question of the film-worker remains unsolved as long as the film is the exclusive property, that is to say: ‘good’ in the hands of the manufacturer and his renters.”8

Brecht and Weill, when taking out proceedings against Nero, knew that they could count on maximum publicity. The whole affair attracted much press coverage, well beyond the film industry trade journals and the culture section of daily papers, because The Threepenny Opera was “hot property” at the time, the hottest there was, in fact.9 As a consequence, the lawsuit was personalized and publicized to an extraordinary degree, with every critic feeling he had to take a stand. Thus, when writing up The Threepenny Trial, Brecht had a fat clipping file to draw on.10 There is some doubt whether he ever saw the film, either then, or subsequently.11


What did the situation look like from the point of view of Nero Film, and by extension, the German film industry? Kurt Weill had sold the film rights of The Threepenny Opera to the Berlin representative of Warner Brothers, who went into coproduction with Tobis Klangfilm12 and Seymour Nebenzahl as owner of Nero Film. On May 21, 1930, Brecht signed a contract with Nero Film-AG, giving him “consultation rights” (Mitbestimmung) on the script, but no powers of a veto.13 The film was to be shot in three versions: German, French and English, as was common practice for major productions in the brief period between the coming of sound and the invention of dubbing.14 This already indicates that the companies involved were not only hoping for worldwide distribution, but from the start conceived of it as a major production,15 indeed, it was said to have had the “biggest set that had ever been made for a German movie up to that time.”16

Nero, with its aggressive production policy (other major Nero films during these years included Pabst's Kameradschaft and Fritz Lang's M), wanted to break into the international market, and also to strengthen its hand against Ufa, the distribution giant in the German and European market. For Warner Brothers, teaming up with a German independent producer was a way of keeping a foot in the door. Much, therefore, was riding on the success of the project and its smooth realization. In the Kraszna-Krausz interview Pabst is aware of the wider economic implications and also of his own dilemma as creative artist and representative of a professional body within the film industry:

Once already, eight years ago, Germany was able to determine the development of the silent film. Then Germany like the whole rest of the world succumbed to the American film. Now for the second time the fate of the European film is lying in the hands of Germany. France, England have already succumbed afresh to American money. Russia has not yet succeeded in finding a productive attitude to the sound-film. America's production however has driven into a blind alley, out of which the way will scarcely be found alone [sic]. Germany is uncommonly enabled by its literary and musical past to determine the shape of the sound-film of tomorrow, if …
… if the German industry will not be Americanized in spite of all that. If the Russia of the silent film won't remain eternally the ‘Mekka’ of the German critics.
… and if the German film-workers will at last determine their fate—and with it the fate of the German film—all by themselves.(17)

The Threepenny Trial was, in this respect, a minor episode in the international struggle of the major companies to sew up the European market, with mixed results. It may have been good box-office publicity for the international release of the film, but there is evidence to suggest that the delays and the terms of the eventual settlement foiled the plans for an English-language version.18

Weill sued Warner/Nero because of the music, rather than any alterations in the text, nor for fearing that the social message of the play had been blunted.19 In the contract he was guaranteed exclusive control over the music to be used. The grounds on which he was able to litigate successfully were apparently that in the scene of the beggars' final march on Trafalgar Square, one trumpet call was inserted that Weill had not composed.20 Weill's settlement is, so to speak, a counter-example of a Brechtian brass trade (Messingkauf): Nero bought from Weill the trumpet call he had not composed.


When considering how “faithful” the film is to Brecht, one is looking at two sources, rather than simply at the original Brecht-Weill opera: Brecht wrote a fairly detailed treatment for the film, as stipulated by his contract. Since the publication of this treatment,21 several critics have tried to extrapolate from it Brecht's implicit conception of the film, comparing it to Pabst's realization.22 Most of them take the view that the film is somehow “fatal to Brecht.”23 The exception is Jan-Christopher Horak, who in a careful assessment of Brecht's treatment of the film script by Leo Lania, Béla Balázs and Ladislaus Vajda,24 and of Pabst's actual realization of both, comes to the conclusion that “Pabst's film is ideologically more correct from a Marxist point of view” than the opera, Brecht's treatment, and the script.25 The argument generally revolves around two basic issues: first, whether Pabst's concern for a more classical continuity style—integrating the songs into the narrative and leaving out as many as he did (from the “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” and the “Tango Ballad,” to the “Executioner's Ballad” and Mack's prison song)—constituted a betrayal of Brecht's epic form and undermined the role of the street singer and various other protagonists, who in the original step in and out of their fictional roles. Second, whether the changes made to Brecht's treatment by the scriptwriters somehow inverted, attenuated, or otherwise falsified the political message Brecht wanted to convey. On the first issue, Horak maintains that Pabst's direction of the actors (many, such as Ernst Busch, Lotte Lenya, Carola Neher, drawn from the first or second stage production) “comes closest to the Brechtian conception of ‘epic’ theater,”26 insofar as dialogue is pared down and sparingly used. (This, of course, is also due to the technical difficulties of combining music, camera movement and spoken word in one take.27) The characters, in the love scenes for instance, look straight into the camera, breaking the illusionistic space of the diegesis.

Discussions of the second point—alterations to the story line—have focused mainly on the ending, and the motivation for the rivalry between Peachum and Macheath. In the opera, Peachum puts pressure on Tiger Brown, the police chief, to avenge Macheath's seduction of and elopement with Peachum's daughter Polly. In Brecht's treatment, the sexual shenanigans are secondary and the rivalry is between the bosses of two competing businesses, both leeching on the middle class: Macheath's gang of professional thieves and fences (the “Platte,” numbering around 120 men), and Peachum's beggar syndicate. Lania, Vajda and Balázs's script once again personalizes the antagonism between Peachum and Macheath and sends Peachum to a dismal fate after his beggars have turned upon him. The finished film represents a compromise, or rather, a skillful synchro-meshing of the two narrative motors driving the conflicting interests, notably by making Polly a much stronger character. At first a typically “romantic” figure, lovestruck, vain, and innocent, Polly turns herself into a hardheaded businesswoman: she is the one who, during Macheath's stint in jail, leads the gang into going legitimate, and sets the terms on which both Tiger Brown and old Peachum join the Bank—the ironic twist being that she does it “out of love,” as if running a bank were no different from keeping the house tidy for her husband's return. Brecht, in his film treatment, is mainly interested in working out the logic of capitalist dog-eat-dog-or-join-the-pack, making the play more like Arturo Ui by introducing a gradient of move and counter-move into the linear flow. The transition from opera to film gave Brecht a chance to maximize the cinema's ability to suggest through editing new connections and new chains of cause, effect, and consequence.

Reading The Bruise (Die Beule), one cannot help feeling that Brecht was having fun being hard-boiled and cynical. He must have known the problems his ideas would encounter in production. Some scenes are more dada than epic theater, with sketches of the dramatic situation and characterization that are broad caricature.28 Montage sequences underline the didactic gestus of the whole. Brecht tried to use film as a medium that “reduces” lines of dramatic development, intent to get from A to B in the shortest possible time. At worst, Brecht is trying to sabotage the project from the start; at best, The Bruise is a critique of the dominant modes of the silent “author's film” prevalent during the 1920s.

Brecht creates causal relationships; Weimar cinema dissolves causal relationships. Brecht is elliptical in order to force issues into contradictions, whereas expressionist cinema uses ellipsis to suspend causality, to introduce ambiguity, and to open up parentheses. Where Brecht is interested in metonymy, the German cinema employs metaphor; Brecht goes for satire, pastiches, irony, the German cinema for pathos, self-tormented psychology, primary process imagery. Brecht's is a text of verbal aggression, the Weimar cinema revels in texts of mute repression. Brecht's affectivity is all invested in punning and “Witz” (the saving of psychic energy) whereas the Weimar cinema's psychic economy is more like dreamwork: it, too, shifts the burden of representation onto figures of condensation and displacement, but without the semiotic or comic payoffs.

What is generally missing in German films is not an attention to detail or objects, but their concretization within the image, and also within the intellectual movement of a scene. Expressionist abstraction is, as Brecht recognized, the very opposite of the kind of reduction or foreshortening (“Verkürzung”) he was after. It is a form of symbolic generalization which opens the event to its contamination by the categories of the imaginary: reversible, inward, existential, psychoanalytical. The historical specificity and social gestus are almost always absent.

Yet Pabst's work, too, provides a critique of Weimar cinema while at the same time exploiting to the full what had made the German cinema internationally famous in the 1920s. He parodies, for instance, the expressionist mania for charging objects with a life of their own. In one of the night scenes, as the gang steals the furnishings for Mackie's wedding, we see an armchair scurrying through the streets, shot at and followed by a policeman. Here Surrealism is invoked to deflate Expressionism.29 More importantly, though, Pabst has rethought in terms of his medium the issues that Brecht raises in the original and in his film treatment.30The Threepenny Opera, as we have it, is not so much a film about the contradictions between moral codes and business practices (the theme of capitalism's own betrayal of the ideology that supports it, also taken up in The Threepenny Trial). Instead, Pabst concentrates on the duplicity of representation itself, and of filmic representation in particular.

To phrase the contrast between Brecht and Pabst in these terms may seem paradoxical, given that Brecht, too, criticized bourgeois modes of representation, and above all, the canons of realism and verisimilitude. But Brecht's notion of representation was language-based, and in his film work he seems to show little interest in the crises of representation brought about by the new culture of the image (however perceptive he was about photography).31 For Brecht, the primacy of language always remained the writer's hope, coupled with an enlightenment belief in the demystifying powers of the word.32

Before exploring this point further, it is worth mentioning that The Threepenny Opera is also “Brechtian” in ways perhaps different from those mentioned above. To the extent that it engages with a recognizable fictional scenario, the narrative is a standard Weimar Oedipal situation: a man steals a daughter from a father, who becomes violent and homicidal but is essentially powerless to intervene, since in the process, the daughter emancipates herself from both father and lover. This scenario, which is similar to, say, a Heimatfilm like Vulture Wally (Die Geier-Wally, E. A. Dupont, 1921), is deconstructed by Pabst, who lets the material interests (“business”) triumph over blood ties and family interests—except that in the end, family interests and business interests are made to coincide perfectly. What in other Weimar films gives rise to melodrama (or comedy) becomes here a parody for the purpose of a materialist critique of the bourgeois family. Rather than depicting a story of betrayal and jealousy (Macheath, unfaithful to Jenny, is betrayed by her to Peachum, who betrays him to the police) which would amount to psychologizing the Brechtian plot, the film is true to Brecht's consistent de-Oedipalizing of family relationships: as in Mother Courage (Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder), Galileo, and even The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Der kaukasische Kreidekreis).


Pabst's cinema, and especially where it deals with political or social issues, has always supported its dramatic conflicts by underpinning them with another structure altogether: that of visual fascination, the treachery and irony of appearances.33 Revolution, as in The Love of Jeanne Ney, or the turmoil of postwar inflation, as in The Joyless Street, are grist to the same mill, where power is defined across its hold on the machineries of make-believe. In this, of course, he is not alone among the major Weimar directors: Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch, too, work with the very structures of the cinema as the powerplay of appearances.

Pabst's obsession with the shifting configurations produced by the false ontology of the filmic image can, I think, be usefully compared to that of Lang: the logic of The Threepenny Opera as a film rests on its place within this wider, also typically Weimar preoccupation. Pabst's Mackie Messer (and especially as incarnated by Rudolf Forster) is above all, the hero of many disguises: the opening song, already in Brecht, emphasizes his ubiquity and invisibility. But the way the film introduces him, leaving the brothel in Drury Lane, emphasizes another point. One of the girls passes him his cane through the window, he tugs at it, she playfully refuses to let go and the cane unsheathes to reveal a lethal dagger, the “teeth” from the song. No object that Mackie is associated with is what it appears to be and yet each becomes a metaphor of his personality. In this respect, he is a second cousin to Dr. Mabuse, equally dandified, though Mabuse is more darkly intelligent and tormented than Macheath. But whereas Mabuse connotes the mesmerizing power of capitalism itself with its breathtaking manipulation of the mass media and public institutions, Mackie Messer's power is founded on erotic power, the register of seduction, which in Mabuse is a mere by-product, a consequence of deploying the kind of intellect needed to wield social power. The Mackie of the film seems incapable of the deeds attributed to him in the Mack the Knife song, however much we see him actively encouraging the legend, and, indeed, being a slave to its claims.

Thus, apart from keeping certain epic elements already mentioned (the songs, the street singer-presenter), Pabst retains a typical ambivalence. In the guise of a critique of “moonshine and romanticism,” the opera had romanticized the proletarian demimonde of the brothel, the pimp, sexual libertinage, and antibourgeois moral sentiment. Brecht's film treatment goes some way towards excising this lumpen sentimentality. Pabst returns to the element that undoubtedly had made the opera such a hit, but adds a telling nuance, in that he uses the performative cabaret mode to redefine the main protagonist's social status as a celebrity. For instance, the first time we see Mackie Messer head-on is when he joins the crowd listening to Ernst Busch singing the Mack the Knife song. His look into the camera introduces a point of view of the crowd and initiates his search for Polly and her mother. Pabst cuts to the crowds moving closer to Ernst Busch singing, then to Mackie entering the frame, followed by a policeman. Mackie twirls his cane in response to the line about the teeth no one can see. A tracking shot from a high angle (the level of Ernst Busch standing on a platform) follows the crowd milling about before it identifies with the diagonal movement of Polly and Mrs. Peachum.

Here the camera, at first moved by Macheath in pursuit of Polly, turns out to be the delegate of the singer's narrative, weaving the character of Mackie and the setting into the song, and constructing a narrational en-abyme effect rather than a distancing device, by its complex shift in focalization.34 Macheath, distracted from his quest for Polly, gets caught up in listening to the song that celebrates his exploits, which introduces both the motif of vanity and self-display, and the extent that he, too, is implicated in the universe of the “show” which so completely dominates the world of the brothel, but also that of Peachum's beggars. The young man through whom the audience is introduced to Peachum's business and whose real poverty lacks credibility until he is kitted out in rags, looks at himself in the mirror, gazing at his image in wonderment and awe. The scene is similar to an earlier one at the wedding, where the pastor, anxious to get away, catches sight of himself in a mirror and is rooted to the spot by his reflection. Later, at a moment of great danger, with the police in hot pursuit, Macheath looks at himself on a “Wanted” poster, and encouraged by this boost to his ego, sets about seducing another female passerby. In these instances of recognition/miscognition, the characters lose themselves to the phenomenon of fascination itself: but only Macheath, captivated by his own image, makes narcissism the chief resource of his power over others.

Eroticism as seduction has in Pabst's cinema much to do with the characters' ability to control the image, which in turn is a control of one's own appearance and disappearance: witness Mackie's compulsive Thursday visits to the “whores at Tunbridge,” elaborate charades of regularity and surprise, geared not toward the sensuous extension of moments of pleasure, but the mise en scène of an ever more skillful vanishing artist. From this it would seem that the power of fascination is ambivalent in respect of gender. In The Threepenny Opera, Mackie, phallic hero par excellence, is “feminized” by his flaunted narcissism, assuming the function of a fetish, and becoming the love object of both males and females: of the masculinized Jenny, the ultra-feminine Polly, and of Tiger Brown, his buddy from the wars. In his dependence on this circulation of desire and its frustration (and the social machinations which result from it), Mackie's position is similar to the role occupied by Lulu in Pandora's Box.35 No doubt his eroticism brings into Pabst's text a subversion quite different from that intended by Brecht and makes Mackie an ambivalent narrative agent, halfway between possessor of the look that furthers the plot and the look that acknowledges being-looked-at-ness: longingly, suspiciously, angrily, admiringly.

Yet Pabst's reworking of the central figure is, as it were, only the localized instance, the evidence of a structure of perversity and narrational reversibility which allows the director to bracket it with another structure of fascination, also perhaps erotic, but in the first instance directed towards the social world: the fascination emanating from the different sham worlds which vie for the spectator's attention. There is the world of Peachum's beggars, that of Tiger Brown's forces of law and order, of capitalist business practices, of respectability, and of Jenny's sexuality, all of them dominated by display and masquerade, which find their corollaries in the wedding feast and the brothel visit and culminate in the crowd scenes and the sham revolution of the beggars' procession.


One of the criticisms leveled against The Threepenny Opera is that Pabst allowed it to become the set designer's and art director's film.36 But the evident emphasis on textures and materials, decor, and props rather underlines the inner logic of Pabst's conception, and the continuity that exists between “classical” Weimar cinema of the 1920s and the sound films of the early 1930s. For a distinctive feature of German silent cinema, and part of its pioneering role in film history, is the “designed” look of so many of the films, based as they were on the close collaboration between director, scriptwriter, cameraman, art director, and editor. This labor-intensive and costly production method allowed directors to pre-design each shot or set-up, and to integrate characters, setting, figure movement, and editing in a way Hollywood had to acquire by importing the star talents from Germany in the 1920s—Lubitsch, Murnau, Pommer, among others.37

Thus, here is a further reason why the collaboration with Brecht was bound to be difficult, given Brecht's unwillingness to subject himself to this apparatus and Pabst's habit of planning set-ups very carefully but improvising story details and dialogue material to fit in with the visual conception:

In framing a scene from the pictorial point of view and in understanding how to use the camera for pictorial effect, he is probably one of the greatest. … What makes it rather difficult for a writer to work with Pabst [is that] he has to supply the whole structure and at the same time he has to creep, as it were, into Pabst's personality in order to present a story to him, a story which Pabst always sees in pictures, not in scenes. … Pabst is certainly not a disciplined person, in the sense of being able to organize a story, to construct. And so if the other man, like Brecht, is just the opposite, but also unable to tell a story, darting from point to point, then you have no counter balance and no force that supplies the structure, the skeleton for the story.38

To the extent, therefore, that Pabst's Threepenny Opera coheres around a unity of style,39 it is still very much an example of a “cinema of metaphor” in the tradition of the 1920s.40 Two metaphoric chains run through the film. One is centered on puppets and dummies, statues and objets d'art; the second on windows, partitions, doors, and Mackie's prison cell. Scenes are not only frequently marked off by a fade-out or black leader (thereby minimizing narrational contiguity), but stand under a different master image: for instance, the window of the brothel and the milliner's shop window are “condensed” in the scene where Jenny opens the window to signal to Mrs. Peachum and the police; the mirrors in the dance hall anticipate those at the wedding and in Peachum's house; the stairs at the warehouse serve as altar for the wedding ceremony, allow Macheath to do his dictation and office work, and “rhyme” Tiger Brown's entrance with the gang's exit; at Peachum's the stairs dramatize the family quarrel, and in the brothel, they show Mackie making his escape.

Both metaphoric series function either in tandem or as counterpoints and both are integral to locating the film in a play of the human and the mechanical, of inside and outside, open and closed, of mirrors and walls, light and darkness—in short, a play of doubles and oppositional pairs entirely focused on sight, illusionism, and imaginary space: a combination which fairly defines that intensification of visual pleasure in Weimar cinema which one might call the fascination of the false.

The subject of puppets is introduced very early on. Before the film properly begins, and over the chorus from the Threepenny song, doll-like stand-ins of the leading characters parade in the round like Seven Deadly Sins or Foolish Virgins on a medieval cathedral clock. Besides preparing for the narrational effects described above, which place Mackie both inside and outside the double fiction of the song and the narrative, the playful sarcasm of the figurines raises the question of who controls the mechanism activating the power politics, of who, finally, pulls the strings on whom and is thus in charge of the show.41 The motif is taken up when we see the dummy bride in the shop window, stripped bare by Mackie's “bachelors” a few scenes further on, with one of the thieves tipping his hat to her—very nearly the same hat that was tipped to Mackie in the dance hall, and then to Tiger Brown. His is the character most closely associated with the metaphoric chain that goes from dress-dummies to dress uniforms, from bowler hats and etiquette to the imposture of office and authority most graphically shown in the scene where one of Macheath's men lets himself be caught “redhanded” by the police in order to deliver the wedding invitation—hidden in his deferentially lowered hat—directly to Tiger Brown. Visually, the bowler hats and their self-importance are echoed in the grotesquely inflated barrels dominating Macheath's warehouse.42 Morally, the motif leads to Peachum, his dummies as beggars, and his beggars as the rent-a-mob dummies of the powers-that-be. Yet so aware is the film of its play on reversal and ironic inversions that Pabst not only introduces a slave motif in the brothel, shown full of statues of negresses, but they form a rhyming contrast to the white plaster goddesses with Greek pretensions in the warehouse, shown most prominently after Polly sings her ballad of the man with the dirty collar who doesn't know how to treat a lady, and Mackie admonishes his men who find the song “very nice”: “You call this nice, you fools—it's art.”

The metaphoric chain that links the many windows, trapdoors, partitions, and skylights first of all draws attention to the sets themselves. In the warehouse, a slow pan reveals the whole brilliant display, but the scene is actually constructed as a series of rapidly changing passages to different fantasy worlds. The backdrop to the wedding, for instance, is the harbor and the moon, in keeping with Mackie and Polly's “Moon over Soho” duet. But its character as a stage (or movie) set, now in keeping with the intensely felt phoniness of the sentiments expressed, is underscored by the fact that we first see it as a steel door, before it is hung with Chinese embroidery. After another song, announced by Polly and applauded by the guests as a performance, a curtain is pulled, the marital bed revealed and a drawbridge raised. The atmosphere of a country fair combines with the sophisticated illusionism of a backstage musical, and as in Pandora's Box, the stage and the mechanics of putting on a show serve as a metaphor for the deceptiveness of representation, but also the pleasure of that very deceptiveness. The warehouse, Aladdin's cave of capitalist production, here a surrealist accumulation of stolen goods and a hideous clash of styles, gives not only the wedding an air of unreality: by celebrating the false bottom of the world it depicts, it turns the human players, but especially the figures of morality and law (the pastor and Tiger Brown) into mere props and objects, obsolete mementos of a bygone age.

This scene stands in a structural contrast to the one in the brothel, which is built very similarly around the foregrounded architectural elements of the decor. Jenny's entrance is lit explicitly to recall that of Tiger Brown when he stepped through the skylight of the warehouse. But what is highlighted here are the different acts of transfer and exchange: framed in the window, Jenny stuffs Mrs. Peachum's bribe in her stocking, the same window that Mackie steps through immediately after. Jenny then opens the window making the fatal sign to Mrs. Peachum and the policemen, before closing it again, while other girls draw the curtains. The window makes this drama of entrapment and betrayal into a scene where money, glances, and bodies become interchangeable signs of transaction and transgression.

Thus, even motifs that relate more directly to the political issues, such as the constant references to ledgers and accounts, bills, papers, lists, bail money, and bank business are, as it were, introduced via references to visual exchanges. Conspicuous at the bank, for instance, is a sliding door with frosted glass, giving rise to a kind of shadow play, where each “board member” takes a bow without the spectator seeing the object of their deference. It is through this very door that Tiger Brown comes, as he slips from one high office to another, strutting into the room with his guard-officer's uniform.


One reason why the film contains so many sets with partitions, panes of clear or frosted glass, blinds and curtains, windows half-lifted and suddenly dropped, is that they play a key role in defining Mackie Messer's mode of authority, based as his attraction is on his image as a show-value. Noticeable from the opening scene—sash windows are raised, objects like a glove, a cane are passed through, linking the inside with the outside—is that entrances, exits, and internal frames establish the paradigm of communicating vessels so important for the movement of the film as a whole. In this respect, transparency and transport are the secrets of Mackie's success, and his power (of fascination, of attraction) resides in an ability to penetrate walls and summon people through windows. The scene where Mackie takes Polly to the dance hall, persuades her to marry him, and organizes the wedding all at the same time is Pabst's way of showing a form of power in action, based, it seems, entirely on the glance and the gesture, on shadows spied through partitions and messages passed as if by magic. Mackie looks at the camera (an incompletely sutured point-of-view shot towards the two crooks), Polly looks at Mackie, while between them is a spherical wall-mounted light, announcing the full moon later on. This set-up is repeated many times: the spectator is drawn into the imaginary space to the front of the screen, and witnessing the consequences of Mackie's look, experiences the power of that look. Thus Mackie does not have to do anything to win Polly: he is the man who makes things happen by simply being seen. In the dance hall full of mirrors reflecting other couples dancing, everything organizes itself around Mackie—source of a power that is economic, logistic, and erotic—but in this scene framed, himself, as a spectator.

This play on vision establishes a double mode of control on the level of the narrative, Macheath's power is defined as active but the mode in which this power is exercised and visualized is passive. A male character defined as phallic but also narcissistic, and the many scenes staged around windows, apertures, and partitions, dramatize a mode in which seeing and being seen are the two aggregate states of the same resource of power and control.

If Mackie is an ambiguous character in relation to gender, since he is not only erotic object, but also both producer and product of the narrative, a similar ambiguity surrounds the female characters—with one important proviso. While the film's image of masculinity is embodied in Mackie, that of femininity is split between Polly and Jenny. Pabst has always been recognized as an exceptional director of actresses and the creator of memorable women characters:

Pabst has [in each of his films] displayed an interest in the mental and physical make-up of his feminine players, with the result that he has often brought to the screen women who have been unusually attractive in a bizarre, neurotic manner, very different from the brilliantly turned out, sophisticated but stereotyped women of American pictures, or the dreary young ladies favoured by British directors.43

Paul Rotha goes on to single out the chance meeting of Mackie and the girl in the street immediately after his escape from the brothel, which, indeed has the sort of eroticism Baudelaire first captured in his eros-and-the-city poem “To a Passerby.” But more crucial to the narrative as a whole is the transformation of Polly, and how she translates the aggressive eroticism of Jenny into a specifically masculine power potential. Polly's mode of subjectivity is emblematically introduced in the scene in front of the milliner's shop. Mackie's desire in the opening scene is born out of a division: the frame is split, as it were, between him catching a disappearing glimpse of Polly and him separating from Jenny. Polly's desire is depicted more classically—for a female character—through the narcissistic doubling of an image. As the song ends on “Mackie, what was your price,” we see Polly in front of the shop window with the wedding dress. The camera is inside the window for this shot, then reverses the angle, and Mackie enters into the frame, but appears on the same side as the dummy in the window display.44 Polly sees the reflection and smiles. Only then does she turn around and, with an expression of shock, sees the “real” Mackie Messer standing next to her. From being the imaginary dummy groom next to the dummy bride he becomes the spy who has seen her see her fantasy. These are the terms around which the seduction in the dance hall and the consent to marriage play themselves out across the screen of Polly's romantic double vision: glance/glance into camera by Polly/Mackie Messer, implicating the spectator into their erotic space. But Polly's narrative trajectory is, of course, the total transformation of this feminine imaginary: it ends with her assuming phallic power over both father and husband, staged in that extraordinary scene already mentioned, where all the thieves turned bank managers bow before an invisible presence, which we infer before we know it, is Polly. Her desire, overinscribed in the register of vision during the first scene, has become that ultimate of male power in the German cinema (of both Lang and Pabst)—invisibility.


Recent criticism of The Threepenny Opera has drawn attention to the fact that duplicity is one of the film's central preoccupations. Tony Rayns even speaks of “frank duplicity.”45 In one sense, of course, this is in keeping with Brecht's original, and indeed his film treatment. Whereas the opera had insisted on the moral duplicity, the film treatment wanted to focus on the economic and political implications of such duplicity. What makes the film appear at one level a retrograde step is that Pabst seems to celebrate the same duplicity which in Brecht is the moral of the fable, and which the verbal wit, and the logic of the dramatic conflicts are called upon to expose. However, Pabst has recognized that the kind of duplicity which the opera had seized upon is the more difficult to focus critically, since its effects are multiple. First, duplicity energizes. Contradictions create differentials, and differentials are the very lifeblood of capitalism, its source of profit and power. Second, duplicity eroticizes. In the play Mackie is attractive to women because he plays hot and cold, because of his double standards, making explicit the duplicity of bourgeois morals by holding a mirror up to it. Finally, duplicity is the source of humor and wit. Pabst has, consistent with his project of translating all these issues into the terms appropriate to the cinema, made a film in which the false is not criticized by the true, but by the false, raised to its nth power.

This he does, essentially, by contrasting distinct forms of cinematic space, all of them imaginary. There is the use of offscreen space to the side of the frame, mostly used for comic effects, and to underscore the social hypocrisy, cynicism, and double morality enacted by the dialogue. Then there is the space to the front of the action, into the camera, and thus toward the spectator, in a manner apparently “estranging” (breaking the illusion) while also implicating us through its performative dimension. But the most typical space of the film, a kind of meta- or hyper-space of representation, is that constructed in the form of an infinite regress, en-abyme, in which a show appears within a show, a frame framing a frame. It is these cinematic markings of spatial relationships which create that constant awareness of the differentiations and degrees operating on the reality status of the image. They structure the intrigue and its logic more decisively than other, more directly social issues, and they would allow one to investigate further the fascination emanating from duplicity.

If one were to read The Threepenny Opera—analogous to so many German films of the early 1930s, and especially those of Lang—as a statement about the nature of power in the age of the mediated images and the manipulation of appearances, then the elaborate mise en scène of Mackie Messer's charisma could be seen, by itself, as a mystification of the source of power. But one might argue that what was at issue for Pabst was first and foremost to preserve the popularity—the original opera's social truth value—and that which had made it commercial, in short, a “hot property.”46 For by emphasizing Mackie's and Polly's narcissism, Pabst enacts and also deconstructs them as role models. It is not so much, as Jean Oser jokingly put it, that “every girl wanted to be Polly … every fellow wanted to be Mackie,”47 but that every spectator, male and female, wants to be in love with their self-image, across the desire of the other. Mackie and Polly have what to this day characterizes the successful consumer of mass-entertainment: “style.”

The German cinema thus contributed to world cinema not so much a new psychological language, a new inwardness, nor even the cinema's own self-reflexivity, but perhaps a different mode of displacing the technology of filmic production into an intensification of the erotic aspect of the filmic reality, which became the heightening of the commodity—the glamour, seizing not only the men or the women characters, but all objects, including the decor. Here lies the peculiar achievement of Pabst's mise en scène in The Threepenny Opera: he was able to imbue every aspect of the filmic process with value in itself, as an added attraction to the commodity status of the artifact which was the opera and became the film.


  1. Even John Willett, who admits to liking the film, thinks that Pabst and Brecht were antagonistic in their outlook. “Gersch, like other students of Brecht, on the whole takes Brecht's view and argues that Nero … had political objections to the new material. … Personally, I doubt whether this was due to anyone but Pabst, whose divergences from Brecht's views … were surely predictable from the start.” See John Willett, Brecht in Context (London: Methuen, 1984), 115.

  2. See, for instance, Europe (January-February 1957), special Brecht issue, 14-21; Ecran, No. 73 (March 1973): 2-29; Screen 16.4 (Winter 1975-1976): 16-33; Cinématographe (Paris), No. 125 (December 1986): 38-39, 42-44.

  3. Walter Benjamin, “The Artist as Producer,” in Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 220-238.

  4. See “Interview with George Höllering,” Screen 15.2 (Summer 1974): 41-73 and Screen 15.4 (Winter 1974-1975): 71-79.

  5. See Willett, Brecht in Context, 180-184.

  6. “Capitalism in its practice is cogent (konsequent), because it has to be. But if it is cogent in practice, it has to be ideologically contradictory (inkonsequent). … Reality has developed to a point where the only obstacle to the progress of capitalism is capitalism itself.” Bertolt Brecht, Gesammelte Werke in 20 Bänden (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1967), 18:204.

  7. Willett calls it “a classic early media study to set alongside some of Benjamin's and subsequently Enzensberger's writings” (Brecht in Context, 116).

  8. A. Kraszna-Krausz, “G. W. Pabst Before the Microphone of German Broadcasting,” Close Up 8.2 (June 1931): 122.

  9. According to Jean Oser, who worked on the film as editor: “When Dreigroschenoper came out, it formed the entire pre-Hitler generation until 1933; for about five years … every girl wanted to be [like Polly, talk like Polly, and every fellow] like Mackie Messer. Apparently the ideal man was a pimp.” See Interview with Oser by Gideon Bachmann, reprinted in Masterworks of the German Cinema, introduced by Dr. Roger Manvell (London: Lorrimer, 1973), 299. (Line in [] missing from original; see microfiche file Die Dreigroschenoper in British Film Institute Library, London.)

  10. See Bertolt Brechts Dreigroschenbuch (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973), 271-336, for a selection of contemporary reviews.

  11. John Willett seems to think he did (Brecht in Context, 117).

  12. “Tobis had a monopoly on all sound film production in Germany because they had bought up all the Swiss, Danish and German patents. They were the only ones who could actually make sound films. You had to rent the sound crew and equipment from them. I was working for Tobis, and so when Pabst wanted to make a sound film … I became editor for him” (Oser interview, 298).

  13. See Wolfgang Gersch, Film bei Brecht (Berlin/GDR: Henschel, 1975), 48, and Willett, Brecht in Context, 114.

  14. See Ginette Vincendeau, “Hollywood Babel,” Screen 29.2 (Spring 1988): 24-39.

  15. “I agree with Brecht, because you don't make a million-dollar movie out of a story which should practically be shot in a backyard” (Oser interview, 299).

  16. Ibid., 300. This may be something of an exaggeration, considering the sets for “Grossfilme” of the 1920s such as Metropolis or Faust.

  17. A. Kraszna-Krausz, “Pabst Before the Microphone,” 125-126.

  18. “An English version, The Threepennies Opera [sic], was also supposed to have been shot. But it appears that essentially this became a straightforward dubbing of the German version.” Claude Beylie, “Quelques notes sur l'opéra de quat'sous,” L'Avant-Scène du Cinéma, No. 177 (1 December 1976): 4. “The film was released in France … and was a tremendous success. In Germany it was not such a success and it was attacked quite often by the critics” (Oser interview, 299). The Threepenny Opera premiered in Berlin on February 19, 1931 and was banned by the Filmprüfstelle on August 10, 1933. After a press show in Paris in March 1931, the French version was banned by the censors and only opened in November 1931, with some minor cuts, at the famous Studio des Ursulines. The cinema also showed the uncut German version.

  19. See Lee Atwell, G. W. Pabst (Boston: Twayne, 1977), 83: “Although the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm production was carried out strictly according to Brecht's directions, it would be a mistake to assume that critics or audiences were captivated by Brecht's bitter cynicism about the human condition. Rather, they were taken with Kurt Weill's jazz-influenced, easily singable score and songs.”

  20. This information according to the interview with Jean Oser. Willett maintains that it was the music in the wedding scene Weill objected to (115).

  21. “Die Beule.” See bibliography for publication data.

  22. See Arlene Croce, “The Threepenny Opera,Film Quarterly 6.1 (Fall 1960): 43-45; Alan Stanbrook, “Great Films of the Century No. 10: Die Dreigroschenoper,Films and Filming 7.7 (April 1961): 15-17, 38; Wolfgang Gersch, Film bei Brecht, 48-71; Willett, 113-116. These may usefully be compared to some of the original reviews of the film, such as those by Lotte Eisner, Siegfried Kracauer, and Paul Rotha.

  23. Arlene Croce, 45.

  24. Reprinted in full (with indications of cuts and alterations made during the shooting) in Masterworks of the German Cinema, 179-276.

  25. Jan-Christopher Horak, “Threepenny Opera: Brecht vs. Pabst,” Jump Cut, No. 15 (July 1977): 20.

  26. Ibid. Willett takes a similar view: “At all events, the finished film is as distinctively a Brecht work as are his other collective works of the time, starting perhaps with the Threepenny Opera and not excluding Happy End of which he chose to wash his hands; and so far as is now known he was satisfied with it” (117).

  27. Paul Rotha, in his very favorable review of the film, draws special attention “to the prevalence of moving camera work in Die Dreigroschenoper. Since the introduction of the spoken word into film-making, there has been a growing tendency to decrease the number of direct cuts in a picture, partly because of the desire to minimize the amount of different camera set-ups and partly on account of the difficulties attendant on cutting and joining the sound strip” (repr. in Masterworks of the German Cinema, 296).

  28. The central idea, namely that Peachum keeps in peak condition the bruise on one of his beggar's heads, received from Macheath's men when they punish him for grassing on a robbery, may be good enough for a cabaret sketch, but is plainly silly as the dramatic premise for the “multi-million movie.” Erwin Leiser, who knew Brecht personally in the 1950s and occasionally went to the cinema with him, speaks of Brecht's “hair-raising ideas of what was feasible in a feature film” (“‘Schlecht genug?’—Brecht und der Film,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 16 June 1983, 45).

  29. “If the director has subverted the play's subversiveness, it is to the end of a poetic anarchy, irrational, beautiful and precise, where surrealism, expressionism and Marxism find a remarkable if fleeting common ground” (Tony Rayns, Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1974, 162).

  30. In this he is within Brechtian thinking, according to which an adaptation ought to constitute the “deconstruction of the work, according to the vantage point of keeping its social function within a new apparatus.” Bertolt Brecht, “Der Dreigroschenprozess,” in Schriften zur Literatur und Kunst, 2 vols. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1966), 1:30; also quoted in Gersch, Film bei Brecht, 51.

  31. See the famous remark in The Threepenny Trial, about a photo of the Krupp works or A.E.G. not telling anything about the reality of such institutions (Bertolt Brechts Dreigroschenbuch, 135).

  32. See Josette Féral, “Distanciation et multi-media, ou Brecht inversé,” in Brecht Thirty Years After, ed. P. Kleber and C. Visser (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

  33. Barthélemy Amengual goes so far as to claim that the favorite Pabst shot is the low-angle, and it functions as a kind of matrix or mastershot, because it concretizes the attitude of fascination. See Georg Wilhelm Pabst (Paris: Seghers, 1966), 57, n. 33.

  34. The narrational complexity of the scene is even more of a technical tour de force when one considers the difficulties of setting up such a scene with the sound equipment then available.

  35. See my “Lulu and the Meter Man,” Screen 24.4-5 (July-October 1983): 4-36.

  36. Andrey Andreyev is often mentioned as being responsible for its look, along with Fritz Arno Wagner, the chief cameraman. A sumptuous volume dedicated to Hans Casparius, edited by Hans-Michael Bock and Jürgen Berger, Photo: Casparius (West Berlin: Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, 1978), gives the fullest visual record of the making of The Threepenny Opera and also contains a wealth of contemporary material, documenting the lawsuit, trade journal reports, press comments, production notes, and Pabst's shooting script (165-431).

  37. See Barry Salt, “From Caligari to Who?,” Sight and Sound 48.2 (Spring 1979): 119-123, for a useful discussion of set design in Weimar cinema; also my “Secret Affinities: F. W. Murnau,” Sight and Sound 58.1 (Winter 1988-1989): 33-39. One of the most astute commentators on this feature of Pabst's style is still Paul Rotha, who talks of the film's “dovetailed workmanship”: “Not solely on account of their individual merit as design do I draw attention to these sets, but because they are the envelope, as it were, of the film. Without the self-contained world that they create, a world of dark alleys, hanging rigging and twisting stairways, without their decorative yet realistic values, without the air of finality and completeness which they give, this film-operetta would not have been credible. … This is due not only to the settings in themselves, but the very close relationship maintained between the players and their surroundings, which has come about because the director and the architect have to all intents and purposes worked with one mind. Each corner and each doorway is conceived in direct relationship to the action played within its limits. This factor, together with the cooperation of the camerawork, builds the film into a solid, well-informed unity” (Masterworks of the German Cinema, 295).

  38. Leo Lania, interviewed by Gideon Bachmann, “Six Talks on G. W. Pabst,” Cinemages (New York) 1.3 (1955).

  39. Pabst shows his sense of humor also in this respect: when Mackie is in prison, even his socks match the bars of his cell.

  40. See Michael Henry, Le cinéma expressioniste allemand (Fribourg: Edition du Signe, 1971), 41-58, for the notion of metaphoric space in relation to German films. I am using the term here as shorthand for a rather complex narratological issue which I discuss further in “National Cinema and Subject-Construction” (unpub. paper, Society for Cinema Studies Conference, New York, June 1985).

  41. “It looks forward (in the integration of characters and setting) to Le Crime de M. Lange rather than backwards to The Joyless Street” (Rayns, 162). Rotha also commented on how Pabst emphasized “the relationship between the players and their surroundings” (Masterworks of the German Screen, 295).

  42. They were noted with amazement by Paul Rotha, ibid.: “On all sides of the set rise up great barrels, ridiculous barrels of absurd height and girth, yet how admirably original. Mackie's dressing-room consists of smaller barrels placed slightly apart, behind each of which he vanishes in turn to complete his toilet.”

  43. Ibid., 297.

  44. Very similar shots can be found in Lang's M, at the beginning and end of Fury, and in R. W. Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz.

  45. Rayns, 162.

  46. See note 30.

  47. See note 9.

Anne Friedberg (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Friedberg, Anne. “An Unheimlich Maneuver between Psychoanalysis and the Cinema: Secrets of a Soul.” In The Films of G. W. Pabst: An Extraterritorial Cinema, edited by Eric Rentschler, pp. 41-51. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Friedberg explores the relationship between cinema and psychoanalysis in light of Pabst's experiences making Secrets of a Soul.]

“Mass culture is psychoanalysis in reverse.”

—Leo Löwenthal

The coincident birthdates of psychoanalysis and the cinema have frequently been celebrated as “no accident.” Freud's theory of the unconscious, his “science” of the psyche (die Seele),1 was, from the start, a theory in search of an apparatus. Yet the cinema, an apparatus which could reproduce and project specular images, was, from its beginnings, an apparatus in search of a theory. Historians who accept metaphors of incipience, birth, parturition, and infancy for the two quite separate “bodies” of psychoanalysis and cinema—one a theoretical “body,” the other an apparatical corpus which only developed its theoretical parasites when well into adolescence—might also want to chart a further history of these figures. As both “bodies” developed, there were moments of mutual attraction, occasions of intercourse and isolation, in what has remained a frequently ambivalent and largely undocumented affair. Freud, who sired and literally engendered his theories, was a protective and possessive father. The cinema, polymorphously conceived, a culmination of inventions and marketing strategies on an international scale, was much more promiscuous in its outreach.

In this context, G. W. Pabst's 1926 film, Secrets of a Soul (Geheimnisse einer Seele), is one such moment of encounter, a chapter in the still unwritten and untheorized metahistory of psychoanalysis and cinema.2 Shown at Freud's seventieth birthday celebration in Berlin, Secrets of a Soul was an occasion for an unprecedented collaboration between the quite separate worlds of film production and psychoanalysis. In working on Secrets of a Soul, the filmmaker Pabst was pulled into the carefully-guarded realm of psychoanalysis. Karl Abraham and Hanns Sachs, both members of Freud's exclusive “circle” of seven, were pulled into the brash mass-cultural world of the cinema.3 The exchange between them, a transference of sorts, provides a unique case study of the reactions of one institution to another.


The production circumstances for Secrets of a Soul provide rare insight into Freud's own attitude toward the cinema: a reaction-formation of defense and suspicion. It was not Freud's first encounter. The much-celebrated exchange between Freud and the master of Fehlleistung himself, Hollywood producer and self-styled studio mogul, Samuel Goldwyn, provides an earlier indication of Freud's dismissiveness toward any cinematic attempts to appropriate his theories. Goldwyn offered Freud $100,000 to cooperate on a film “depicting scenes from the famous love scenes of history, beginning with Antony and Cleopatra.”4 Freud refused to discuss Goldwyn's offer. According to Hanns Sachs, who reported their exchange in a letter circulated to Freud's official circle, Freud's telegram of refusal created more of a furor in New York than the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams.5

In contrast to the Goldwyn proposal, the project which became Secrets of a Soul involved a more substantial confrontation. The proposition came from Hans Neumann of Ufa—from Berlin, then, not from Hollywood. Whether or not the original impetus for the film stemmed from Ernö Metzner (a point obscured in most accounts),6 it was Hans Neumann who approached Karl Abraham, the founder of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society and the recently elected President of the International Association of Psychoanalysis, with a detailed project for a film about psychoanalysis. Ufa, at this point in the mid-twenties, was certainly engaged in the campaign to have the cinema considered as a legitimate art, a product of high culture. (The Ufa division responsible for Secrets of a Soul was the Kulturfilm-Abteilung.) Significantly coincident with the legitimation crusade by cinema enthusiasts, psychoanalysts also campaigned for the legitimacy of the “science” of the unconscious. In February 1925, Karl Abraham wrote to Freud that a lecture he would give at the Berlin Society for Gynecology and Obstetrics would be the “first official recognition of psychoanalysis in Germany.”7

The correspondence of Freud and Karl Abraham between June and December of 1925, details, along with news of Abraham's progressing illness, Freud's vehement distrust of the cinema. The timing here may not quite be coincidental: Abraham took to his bed just after his visit from Hans Neumann, as if the film idea, not the bronchitis he caught on his lecture tour in Holland, were the agent of fatal infection. Abraham died that year on Christmas Day, and the disagreements he had with Freud, particularly about the “film matter” [Filmsache], were never resolved. But one thing from the letters seems evident: the structure of the disagreement between Freud and Abraham was not new to them. The “film affair,” as Abraham called it, was indeed a repetition of earlier interactions, of previous disputes about discipleship. Whereas Abraham had been the first to label Jung and Rank as “deviants,” Freud had to be convinced to distrust them. The “film affair” reversed this structure. Freud was suspicious and Abraham reassuring. The cinema project was, to Freud, an unquestionable betrayal of his theories. A brief précis of their exchange bears this out.

On June 7, 1925, Abraham wrote a long letter to Freud explaining Neumann's proposal. Laced with his own doubts about the project, Abraham's letter defensively anticipates Freud's sense of protective custody.

I need hardly mention that this kind of thing is not really up my street; nor that this type of project is typical of our times and that it is sure to be carried out, if not with us, then with other people who know nothing about it.8

Abraham outlines the offer:

The difference between this straightforward offer compared with the American Goldwyn is obvious. The plan for the film is as follows: the first part is to serve as an introduction and will give impressive examples illustrating repression, the unconscious, the dream, parapraxis, anxiety, etc. The director of the company who knows some of your papers is, for instance, very enthusiastic about the analogy of the invader used in the lectures to illustrate repression and resistance. The second part will present a life history from the viewpoint of psychoanalysis and will show the treatment and cure of neurotic symptoms.9

“The analogy of the invader” was taken from the lectures that Freud gave at Clark University in 1909, lectures that were intended to explain the theory of the unconscious in simple language to an American audience. Freud metaphorized the unconscious as a lecture hall and illustrated repression as the need to kick out an audience member who makes a disturbance. If Neumann was “enthusiastic” about this analogy, it was because it had proved so successful in translating Freud's theories to an easily understood, accessible level. If the Clark lectures helped establish Freud's reputation in America, Neumann must have calculated that the “Worcester-simile,” as it came to be known, would work for an equally simple-minded film audience.

In addition to the film, Neumann proposed an accompanying pamphlet, “easily comprehensible and non-scientific,” to be sold through the Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag. Despite his avowed hesitancies, Abraham seemed somewhat seduced by the idea. He includes his own plans for the film.

My idea is not to describe psychoanalysis systematically but to give examples from everyday life and to develop the theory around them. … Our influence should extend into every detail in order to avoid anything that might discredit us in any way.10

Freud's reply was swift and uncompromising. On June 9th, he wrote back quite directly: “I do not feel happy about your magnificent project.” The following succinct statement of hesitation illustrates Freud's attitude toward the cinema:

My chief objection is still that I do not believe that satisfactory plastic representation of our abstractions is at all possible. … The small example that you mentioned, the representation of repression by means of my Worcester simile, would make an absurd rather than an instructive impact.11

(emphasis mine)

Freud frequently sought topological metaphors to describe and make more tangible the otherwise abstract concept of the unconscious, but he never appealed to the cinema as an apt analog.

Freud's “A Note Upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad’” (written in the fall of 1924, published in the Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse in 1925) is curiously coincident with these debates about a film project.12 In this short piece, Freud chooses the model of the “Mystic-Writing-Pad” (der Wunderblock), a recently marketed writing contraption with a thin layer of celluloid over a waxed surface, as a “concrete representation” of the perceptual apparatus of the mind. He dismisses auxiliary apparatuses intended to substitute for “the improvement or intensification of our sensory functions … spectacles, photographic cameras, ear trumpets.”13 Devices used to aid memory, a category which could include the cinema, are, Freud claims, similarly imperfect, “since our mental apparatus accomplishes precisely what they cannot: it has an unlimited receptive capacity for new perceptions and nevertheless lays down as permanent—even though not unalterable—memory traces of them.”14 While Freud's prompt response to Abraham illustrates his vehement distrust of the cinema to represent his abstractions, “A Note Upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad’” seems to demonstrate that he was still thrashing about for suitable concrete illustrations.

As the correspondence between Freud and Abraham continued, the positions solidified. Abraham supplied progress reports in July. By then it was clear that Sachs, the Berlin-based, Vienna-born analyst, was as involved as Abraham.

Sachs and I believe that we have every guarantee that the matter will be carried out with genuine seriousness. In particular, we think we have succeeded in principle in presenting even the most abstract concepts. Each of us had an idea concerning these and they complemented each other in the most fortunate way.15

And in August:

The work on the film is progressing well. Sachs is devoting himself to it and is proving very competent, and I am also trying to do my share.16

The last letters between Freud and Abraham, in October and November, address their differences directly:

You know, dear Professor, that I am unwilling to enter once again into a discussion of the film affair [Filmangelegenheit]. But because of your reproach of harshness (in your circular letter), I find myself once more in the same position as on several previous occasions. … I advanced an opinion which is basically yours as well but which you did not admit to consciousness.17

Freud, although he does not agree that he is in unconscious concordance with Abraham, is conciliatory in what was his last letter to Abraham.

It does not make a deep impression on me that I cannot convert myself to your point of view in the film affair [Filmsache]. There are a good many things that I see differently and judge differently. … With that let us close the argument about something that you yourself describe as a trifle.18

If the differences between Abraham and Freud were not enough of a disturbance to Sachs and Abraham as co-scenarists, Sachs also was distraught by an article by R. J. Storfer, the director of the Verlag, which had criticized the film project. Sachs had discovered that Storfer and Siegfried Bernfeld, another Viennese analyst, had also written a film script that they were trying to interest other film companies in. Storfer and Bernfeld discussed their project with Abraham who informed them that his contract with Ufa stipulated that no other “official” Verlag-supported film could be made within a period of three years.19

The opening titles of Secrets of a Soul credit the manuscript as a collaboration between two film-world talents, Hans Neumann and Colin Ross, with technical advice from two psychoanalysts, Dr. Karl Abraham and Dr. Hanns Sachs. Sachs wrote the monograph to accompany the film. The thirty-one-page pamphlet describes the case study in the film and provides an introduction to many of the psychoanalytic concepts it attempts to illustrate. The pamphlet has separate sections to explain: I. Fehlhandlungen (“slips” or parapraxes); II. Die Neurose—in this case, a phobia and a compulsion (Zwangsimpuls); and III. Die Traumdeutung—the theoretical background to dream interpretation. In his closing commentary, Sachs acknowledges Freud's objections and admits:

No single film can explain the entire scope of psychoanalysis, nor can a single case be used to illustrate all clinical manifestations. A great deal was discarded from the presentation when it was too difficult or too scientific for the general public, or unsuitable for film portrayal.20


Secrets of a Soul was not the first film to deal with serious psychological problems nor the first to attempt cinematic representation of dreams or mental phenomena, but it was the first film that directly tried to represent psychoanalytic descriptions of the etiology of a phobia and the method of psychoanalysis as treatment.

In the early fall of 1925, Hans Neumann asked G. W. Pabst to direct the project on psychoanalysis.21 Pabst had just completed The Joyless StreetDie freudlose Gasse—to mixed critical acclaim. He was now being asked to direct, indirectly, a film “mit Freud.”

Aside from this rather obvious intertextual pun on Pabst's own filmography,22Secrets of a Soul also had a number of unintentional but nevertheless significant linguistic twists in casting. Werner Krauss, who had played the Döppelganger in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920)—madman in the inner story, benevolent doctor in the framing story—was now cast as the neurotic analysand.23 Krauss's career trajectory, initially at least, took him from Caligari to Freud.24 The doctor-to-patient transference in Krauss's filmography seems further ironized by the choice of actor who was to play the analyst25 in the film: an actor from the Moscow Art Theatre, Pavel Pavlov.26 Pabst's assistant director, Mark Sorkin, took classes from Sachs on psychoanalysis so that he could tutor Pavlov.27 That same year, in the Soviet Union, Vsevold Pudovkin was at work on a film that also attempted a straightforward cinematic appropriation of psychological theories. Yet Pudovkin's film, Mechanics of the Brain, was about the work of Freud's mightiest theoretical opponent, the physiologist Ivan Pavlov.

Abraham and Sachs's script had to contend with the essential problem of translating a “talking cure” into a silent series of images. Secrets presents a case study—the origins of a knife phobia and its treatment through analysis. Pabst's own relation to knives also seems to demand some analysis. Instead of a phobia of knives, Pabst seems to have had an obsessive fixation on them, a genuine Messerzwang. Knives play significant roles not only in Secrets, but in a number of Pabst films, including Pandora's Box,The Threepenny Opera, and Paracelsus.

Secrets of a Soul is a film narrative with the structure of a detective film, the psychoanalyst as a sort-of Sherlock Jr. who witnesses each image as the analysand retells the events leading up to his nightmare and his resulting phobia. The analyst must then deduce and decode the origins of the client's phobia. Geheimnisse uses dream analysis as the central hermeneutical tool of its narrative; the dream is a cinematic attempt at direct pictorial transcription of psychic mechanisms, a key to the locked room of the unconscious.

A quick comparison with Buster Keaton's 1924 film, Sherlock Junior, illustrates how such analytic narratives entail the skills of film analysis. In the diegetic world of Sherlock Junior, Sherlock is an actual film spectator, a movie projectionist who studies to become a detective. He falls asleep and “dreams” the solution to his case. Keaton, more directly, dreams a film in which he projects himself as the heroic protagonist. The film he views is a wish-fulfillment, from which he could conduct his own deductions about behavior. The dream in Sherlock Junior is structured like a film, the spatial discontinuities of each abrupt shot change become the source of comedy. Each cut displaces the hero from one setting to another. He sits on a park bench, the shot changes, Keaton is suddenly in a landscape without a bench and falls to the ground. Secrets of a Soul, unlike the Keaton film, makes no direct reference to the apparatical construction of the cinema. But both films use the dream as a key to unlock the narrative mysteries. Just as Keaton doubles for the film spectator who deduces a conclusion from a series of images, the psychoanalyst in Secrets doubles for the role of a film analyst who rereads and hence interprets the film-dream image.

A brief description of the film's narrative and its construction demonstrates that it addresses its spectator in a quite sophisticated fashion.28Secrets can be separated into the following sections: Pre-dream—coincident events that lead up to the nightmare; The Dream; Post-dream—the series of parapraxes which demonstrate the phobia and compulsion; The Analysis; and The Epilogue/Cure.


The opening shot (in the German print) is of Werner Krauss's face distorted in a small round shaving mirror. In crosscut fashion, a spatial separation is established between the husband's bedroom, where he shaves by the window, and the wife's bedroom, where she brushes her hair in front of her vanity. After some crosscutting and matched continuity on the door between their rooms, the man exits his room and enters hers. The wife playfully attempts to kiss her husband and is rebuffed by the shaving cream on his face. She shows him a straggly tuft of hair on her neck, indicating that she needs it to be trimmed. As he applies shaving cream and begins to shave his wife's neck, they are interrupted. The interruption occurs literally as this chain of images is abruptly intercut with an image from a third space of the neighbor opening her shutters and screaming. This is followed by the first intertitle: “Help!!!”29 Although the film is silent, the scream for help is vividly demonstrated. As the man begins to reapply the razor, he notices that he has cut his wife's neck.

Circumstances continue to conspire toward the husband's disturbance: on his way to work, he sees a crowd has gathered across the street, ambulances and police. His neighbors are talking, a title indicates: “Last night, with the razorblade he———.”30 The husband goes to his workplace, a chemical laboratory, and registers some distress in reaction to a point-of-view shot of his letter opener, the blade of which he avoids using. A woman and her young daughter visit the laboratory; after he gets up from his desk to give the little girl some candy, the girl's mother and the female lab assistant exchange knowing glances, as if to laugh at him. That evening when he returns home, his wife shows him an article in the newspaper, which we assume has to do with the crime next door. It upsets him and he throws the newspaper into the fire.

A police inspector comes to their house to inquire about the crime. The man answers that he only learned about it when he heard the “help” cry that morning. After the inspector leaves, the wife shows her husband an exotic gift and a letter sent by her cousin to announce his imminent arrival. The cousin's letter is accompanied by photos and another gift, a saber-like sheathed sword. The photos of the cousin show him standing quite erect wearing a pith helmet of phallic proportions. The husband's attention to the saber is intensified by a point-of-view shot of the sword. He brandishes the sword briefly and then puts it down hastily.

When they retire for bed that evening, the wife seems disappointed when her husband bids her good night at the door to her bedroom and then retires to his room. A series of crosscut shots of the husband-in-his-bed and the wife-in-her-bed are intercut with images of a storm that is brewing outside on their patio. Then a title indicates: “The Dream.”31

In terms of Freudian dream analysis, all of the narrative events that have happened up until this dream, furnish day-residues which contribute to the logic of the husband's disturbance. Each of these circumstances—the murder, his guilt over cutting his wife's neck, the gossiping neighbors, the two women laughing at him in his workplace, the visit by the police inspector, the imminent arrival of his wife's cousin, and the gifts of the fertility statue and the sword—all become part of the dreamwork.

The images from the dream are intercut with images of the man sleeping fitfully as lightning flashes over his face. There is a linguistic significance to the coincidence of the storm and the cousin's arrival that is apparent only in the German-language print or to those familiar with the sounds of German. Later as the man is describing the dream to the analyst, he says: During the night before the outbreak of my illness, there was a bad storm [ein schweres Unwetter].32 Here, ein schweres Unwetter becomes easily conflated with the disturbing arrival of the cousin, der Vetter.


The dream sequence was designed by Ernö Metzner and shows off the cinematography of Guido Seeber. This sequence of seventy-five shots uses many camera-tricks—superimpositions, model-shots, stop-action and reverse-motion—to illustrate the condensations and displacements of the dreamwork.33 Unlike the previous progression of images, the dream is not constructed with the logic of continuity editing, but follows a purely associative sequence, associations that are not immediately apparent. Lotte Eisner maintains that the dream sequence would not have been possible were it not for the lessons of expressionism: “In this style Pabst discovered a means of giving a luminous and unreal relief to objects or people, of deforming architectural perspective, and of distorting the relative proportion of objects.”34

While only a shot-by-shot breakdown of the seventy-five shots in the dream would completely describe its structure, it can be reduced to its basic elements: four associative sequences interrupted by shots of the husband sleeping fitfully. In this sequence, all of the images have dark backgrounds. We will see many of these images again later in the film when the dream is retold to the analyst, but they are repeated with a whitened background, the actions made more visible.

The first eighteen shots of the dream establish, through crosscutting, an image of the cousin sitting in a tree wearing his pith helmet. The husband looks up to him from the patio to his house and frantically tries to get back inside the house. The cousin aims an imaginary gun at the husband and, through stop-action dissolve, a real gun appears. The husband then jumps into the black space of the air, and, in point-of-view shots, we see the patio getting smaller as the husband floats upward. The cousin aims and shoots and in point-of-view shots the patio gets larger as the husband falls to the ground. Shot 19 shows the husband in bed fitfully tossing and turning.

The dream resumes (shots 20-43) with a crosscut of three images: a cave-like space filled with a large version of the cousin's fertility statue gift; the husband against a black background as a crossing gate comes down, preventing him from moving forward; and a superimposition of two electric trains, crossing in perpendicular directions, with, in another layer of superimposition, the cousin waving from the window of a moving train. This sequence concludes as the crossing gate goes up and the man walks toward us dressed in a bowler hat with a cane. An expressionistic cardboard town pops up from an empty black space. A tower spirals upward in front of the town. The tower is shaped as a phallus, with its top resembling the cousin's helmet. The husband looks up to the top of the tower where bells are ringing. The ringing bells become superimposed with the heads of the three women—his wife, his lab assistant, and the woman who visited with her child.35

This second dream segment is interrupted with shots (44-47) of the husband tossing and turning; the wife asleep and then waking; the husband tossing and turning. The dream resumes with an intercut sequence (shots 48-64) of another complex superimposition (a courtroom-like trial superimposing a shadow of drums, the wife showing the cut-mark on her neck, a group of men) with shots of the husband hanging from the bars of another gate which prevents him from moving forward.

The dream is interrupted again (shots 65-67 show the husband in bed) and then resumes (shots 68-76) with its final segment. The husband, in a laboratory-like room, goes to a high window to look out. In counter-shot, the husband sees a dark pool with lily pads. Then, in reverse angle, we see the husband looking through barred windows. In the counter-shot, a small boat with the wife and the cousin floats into the darkened pool. The wife pulls a baby doll out of the water—a somewhat unnatural movement because it is pulled out of the water in reverse motion. The husband watches this through the barred window. The wife and cousin then embrace and the wife gives the cousin the doll. In the lab the husband runs for a knife, flails about and then begins stabbing at a superimposed image of his wife. He repeats the rutting gestures of this stabbing until she disappears.


After the dream, the husband begins to exhibit a variety of paraparaxes. The next morning when he begins to shave he “accidentally” drops his razor on the floor and decides instead to go to the barber. Then, while he is at the laboratory demonstrating something with a test tube, the phone rings. His female assistant answers it and when she informs him that his wife wants him to know that her cousin has arrived, he abruptly drops the test tube and it shatters on the floor.

When he returns home that evening, the wife and cousin show him some old photos. In a reaction shot to one of the photographs, of the three of them as children, the husband is visibly troubled. As they dine, he is afraid to touch his knife, asking his wife to carve the roast. Disturbed by the knives, he suddenly excuses himself, leaves the house and goes to his club. After several drinks, he exits without his key. He is observed by the doctor who follows him home, and in front of his gate tells him: “You have a reason for not wishing to enter your house.” And as if to explain how he knows this: “It is part of my profession.”36 When the husband returns home, his wife greets him but as he embraces her he stares repeatedly at the knife on the table and at the back of her neck. His hand reaches out for the knife, and only with great effort does he resist the urge to pick it up. Quite distraught, he again leaves the house.

As the evidence of his disturbance accumulates, it has become apparent that, since his dream, the husband has a fear of knives and also a compulsion to kill his wife. For refuge, he goes to his mother's house. His concerned mother asks: “Don't you know anybody who could help you?” As if in response, her question is followed by an image of the smiling doctor with a superimposed key. After locating the doctor through his club, the man goes to the doctor to confess his compulsion to kill his wife. The doctor tells him it is only a symptom of a more complicated malady and that there is a method—Psychoanalyse—that can treat this kind of disease.

Before the analysis officially begins, the husband is told he must move out of his house and in with his mother. (As soon as it becomes apparent that the husband has left his wife, the cousin also moves to a hotel.) When the film was first shown at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society's celebration of Freud's seventieth birthday in May 1926, a member of the Society objected to this part of the film's portrait of psychoanalytic treatment. If every man must leave his wife and live with his mother, as the character in the film is told to do, the analyst worried, no one would consent to psychoanalysis.37


The hundred or so shots that compose the scene in the doctor's office, intercutting dream, symbolic representation, early childhood memories, and the retelling of everyday events with the interaction between the analyst and analysand, form a montage strategy quite unlike the “invisible editing” that had been applauded in Pabst's The Joyless Street. This alteration between couch-based shots and the pictorial renditions of the husband's dream and memories, creates for the viewer an entry into complex character subjectivity.

A brief analysis of the shot sequence of the retold dream illustrates that Pabst was employing one of his most complicated uses of montage, a strategy that would have been applauded by Eisenstein, if not in ideological terms, at least in formal ones. Yet many of the images from the dream and retold narrative are left unanalyzed, and this excess of meaning forms, almost, an intellectual overtone.

An enumeration of the variety of shot types will help clarify the montage alternation between: 1) Symbolic representations, fantasies, or perhaps figures of speech: for example, as if to symbolize their marriage and desire for children, we see the husband and wife against a white background, planting a small tree. A dark and empty room becomes, through stop-action dissolve, filled with nursery furniture. The husband also tells of imagining his wife in compromising positions and we see shots of her in a harem-like place, reclining with the helmeted cousin, smoking on a long pipe. 2) Childhood memories: the photograph that upset the husband triggers his memory of a childhood Christmas with an electric train, the occasion when his wife, as a young girl, gave her baby doll to the cousin. 3) Retold dream images: repetitions of the dream, but altered slightly in sequence. 4) Retold narrative events: some of the earlier events or interactions repeated—the cry for help, the neighbors talking, the woman laughing in the lab—are shown now isolated against a white background.

In the sequencing of these images, the analyst is being “told” what we as spectators “see.” The analyst is positioned as a fictional surrogate for the film spectator who performs an interpretation of the logic of each image and its sequence. But it is not apparent until the psychoanalytic sessions begin that there is an implicit equation between dream analysis and film analysis in this repetition of images from the dream and from otherwise quotidian events. As film spectators, we have just seen these images. This analytic repetition, rereading, is not unlike the critical-theoretical activity of film analysis, in which one interprets images and the associative logic of their sequence. Yet the equation remains implicit. Secrets of a Soul does not make the activity of film analysis at all explicit to the viewer who reviews the dream and narrative images and must recontextualize and reanalyze their significance.

What seems most striking about this implicit equation is how many of the images remain unanalyzed and uninterpreted. This overload of signification creates a curious excess in the film, perhaps more like a semiotic undertow than an intellectual overtone. While it suggests that the viewer must resee what has been seen before, the absence of analysis of some of the images also becomes a striking repression. Many elements that are made quite explicit in the visual language of the film—the phallic nature of the cousin's helmet and the shattered test-tube, the shadow of the cousin's phallic helmet on the wife's womb—are not analyzed in the verbal exchange between the analyst and analysand. But these elements are apparent to the film spectator who is also deducing the logic behind the man's phobia. The spectator of Secrets of a Soul is positioned as a more astute psychoanalyst than the fictional surrogate. The narrative pleasure offered by the film is in the act of hermeneutical detection, the act of psychoanalysis. In short, it is a film which equates the boons of psychoanalytic treatment and cure with the skills of film analysis.

Certainly, Secrets did not attempt to contend with some of the more controversial foundations of Freud's theories of infantile psycho-sexual development, and chose instead to depict the concept of the unconscious and the therapeutic powers of psychoanalysis to treat mild neuroses such as this case of phobia and compulsion. The analysis demonstrated is classically Freudian; the film embodies the structure of dream analysis as Freud intended it to be performed. Yet here the “talking cure” is successfully reduced to silent images. An analysis is conducted, not on the speech of the analysand but on images that Pabst provides. Ironically, the American critic, Harry Alan Potamkin, would write of Pabst's “psychologism” that “his own ‘suppressed desire’ was more social than Freudian.”38


The “cure” achieved at the end of the film, is not unlike the cure supplied by other film narrative endings—a final frame in which the family unit, here with the addition of a child, embraces happily. The epilogue is idyllically set in a countryside more reminiscent of a tranquil landscape in German romanticism than the twisted chiaroscuro of expressionism. The ending functions as straightforward wish-fulfillment, not unlike the tacked-on conclusion of F. W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann, 1924) a compensation for all that has been suffered in the course of the narrative. Here the endangered marriage has been repaired, consummated—and, indeed, blessed with a child. If Secrets of a Soul was to be an advertising film for psychoanalysis, this final image of the happy family unit was the product being sold.


For Hanns Sachs and Karl Abraham, the ambition behind Secrets of a Soul was to make public the secrets of psychoanalysis, to extol its curative virtues. For Hans Neumann and G. W. Pabst, the film provided an occasion to use a psychoanalytic case study as a cinematic narrative, to exploit the hermeneutic similarities between the work of psychoanalysis and the act of cinema spectatorship. While Freud's reaction to Secrets of a Soul remains unknown (it was not recorded by Jones, nor mentioned in any of Freud's own papers), his hostility toward the cinematic appropriation of his theories suggests a vigorous, almost Luddite, resistance to the tools of modernity. Nevertheless, Secrets of a Soul remains the first film to use psychoanalysis as a narrative device and it was, if not Freud's first, certainly his last unheimlich maneuver with the cinema.


  1. As Bruno Bettelheim points out in “Freud and the Soul” (an essay which first appeared in The New Yorker, 1 March 1982, and later became part of Freud and Man's Soul [New York: Knopf, 1983]), English translations of Freud excise most of his references to the soul (70-78). Both Strachey and Brill translate the German word Seele as psyche or as “mind,” rather than soul, eliminating much of its associative meaning. In all Standard Edition translations, for example, der seelische Apparat, is translated as mental apparatus. If Freud had meant “of the intellect” or “of the mind,” Bettelheim asserts, he would have used the word “geistig” (72). “Freud never faltered in his conviction that it was important to think in terms of the soul when trying to comprehend his system, because no other concept would make equally clear what he meant; nor can there be any doubt that he meant soul, and not the mind, when he wrote ‘seelisch’” (73). The German word Seele carries the spiritual connotations of the word “soul,” a word that is generally omitted from more scientific-sounding English translations of Freud.

  2. The English-language title of the film retains much of what Bettelheim claims is lost from most translations of Freud. However, the title seems to give little indication of these psychoanalytic references to English-language viewers who are unaware of Freud's emphasis on the “soul.” Geheimnisse also contains the root word Heim, as in heimlich (the concealed, the withheld, the PRIVATE), a key word in Freud's lengthy analysis of “Das Unheimliche.” This 1919 essay explored the similarities in signification between heimlich and unheimlich, words that should have opposite contradictory meanings, but instead come to mean the same thing—familiar and yet concealed. Translated as “The Uncanny,” the essay becomes another example of the linguistic loss of root words and connotations in translation. There are two previous English-language articles on the film: Bernard Chodorkoff and Seymour Baxter, “Secrets of a Soul: An Early Psychoanalytic Film Venture,” American Imago 31.4 (Winter 1974): 319-334; Nick Browne and Bruce McPherson, “Dream and Photography in a Psychoanalytic Film: Secrets of a Soul,Dreamworks 1.1 (Spring 1980): 35-45.

  3. Freud had given six of his disciples—Rank, Eitingon, Ferenczi, Jones, Abraham, Sachs—each a ring set with a semiprecious stone. The seven became a cabal-like group of intimates, corresponding regularly with circulating letters. By 1926, Rank and Ferenczi had broken with the circle, Abraham had died, and only Jones, Sachs, Eitingon, and Freud were left. While Sachs describes the protocols of the circle of seven, he makes no mention of the Geheimnisse project in his memoir of Freud, Freud, Master and Friend (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1944).

  4. See Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, 3 vols. (New York: Basic Books, 1957), 3:114. Jones gets a few of the details wrong in his account. Perhaps as evidence of his faint knowledge of the film world, he refers to Goldwyn as a film director. Jones also writes that the finished film was screened in Berlin in January 1926, but it was not screened until 24 March 1926 at the Gloria-Palast in Berlin.

  5. Ibid., 114.

  6. Chodorkoff and Baxter claim (319) that Ernö Metzner suggested the idea to Hans Neumann, who intended to direct the film himself. Their source for this information was the unpublished biography by Michael Pabst. They also describe how “documentary department officials” at Ufa felt that Neumann had “insufficient experience” and instead chose Pabst because The Joyless Street had impressed them.

  7. A Psychoanalytic Dialogue: The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Karl Abraham 1907-1926, ed. Hilda C. Abraham and Ernst L. Freud (New York: Basic Books, 1964), 380. The German edition of the correspondence can be found in: Sigmund Freud, Karl Abraham, Briefe 1907-1926, ed. Hilda C. Abraham und Ernst L. Freud (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1965), 355-371.

  8. Letters of Freud and Abraham, 380.

  9. Ibid., 382-383.

  10. Ibid., 383.

  11. Ibid., 384.

  12. “A Note Upon the ‘Mystic-writing-pad,’” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vols., trans. and ed. James Strachey et al. (London: Hogarth, 1953-1973), 19:227-232. [“Notiz über den ‘Wunderblock,’” Gesammelte Werke (London: Imago, 1940-1952), 14:3-8.]

  13. Ibid., 228.

  14. Ibid., 228.

  15. Letters of Freud and Abraham, 389.

  16. Ibid., 392.

  17. Ibid., 398.

  18. Ibid., 399. Freud refers to the matter as the “Filmsache.” While Abraham's term in his letter of October 27, 1925, “die Filmangelegenheit,” more directly meant “affair.” In the English translation, the translators continue to refer to it as “film affair.”

  19. See Jones, Life and Work, 3:115.

  20. Hanns Sachs, Psychoanalyse. Rätsel des Unbewussten (Berlin: Lichtbild-Bühne, 1926), 29. Translation by A. F.

  21. Lee Atwell's account in G. W. Pabst (Boston: Twayne, 1977), 37-42, describes the origin of the project without mentioning the correspondence between Abraham and Freud. Atwell attributes the project's origin to Pabst, who out of his interest in Freud's work, and his acquaintance with a Dr. Nicholas Kaufmann, contacted Neumann and met Sachs and Abraham. Atwell also places Pabst in collaboration with Colin Ross and Neumann, as if Pabst had been involved in the scriptwriting stage of the production. The Chodorkoff and Baxter account (in American Imago), places Pabst's entrance to the project much later, in the fall of 1925, after, as the summer of correspondence between Freud and Abraham indicates, the script had been written.

  22. The American critic and correspondent for Close Up, Harry Alan Potamkin, made this pun in his 1933 article, “Pabst and the Social Film,” published in the literary journal Hound and Horn. Of Pabst he wrote: “He was as yet the humanitarian, and not the ‘psychologist,’ in the ‘freudlose Gasse’ (the street without Freud.)” This essay is reprinted in The Compound Cinema, ed. Lewis Jacobs (New York and London: Teachers College, 1977), 410-421.

  23. In the German-language version, the man is not given a name. In the English-language version, his name is Martin Fellman.

  24. Kracauer's well-known account of German cinema in the Weimar years is titled From Caligari to Hitler. In this case, Werner Krauss went from playing the duplicitous Doctor Caligari, both benevolent and mad, to playing, in Secrets, a man maddened and sent to a benevolent doctor. Both films are narratives of cure, with a similar hermeneutic structure, detective work that involves the interpretation of data as symptoms and clues.

  25. In the German-language version of the film, the doctor remains unnamed, while in the English-language version, the doctor is named Dr. Orth. Orth in Greek means correction of deformities, as in orthodontia, orthopedics; in short, Dr. Cure.

  26. “Pawel Pawlow” in the German print. Atwell (41) maintains that Pabst had been impressed with Pavlov especially in Robert Wiene's Raskolnikow (1923).

  27. Mark Sorkin was assistant director for numerous Pabst films. Sorkin, who spoke fluent Russian, translated his lessons from Sachs for Pavlov, who spoke only Russian and knew nothing of Freud's work. Pavlov performed so convincingly that, according to Atwell, a group of American therapists contacted him for a lecture (Atwell, 41-42).

  28. A few minor differences in the available English-language and German-language prints also bear some description. In the English version of Secrets, the film opens with an image of Freud, as if his silent outward gaze provided indication of his sanction. The second image in the English print is of Dr. Orth, writing case notes at his desk. These shots are not unlike the shots in Caligari as Werner Krauss sits at his desk writing case notes. They are designed to place the analyst-character as a fictional surrogate, sponsored by Freud. The German print opens without the direct visual appeal to Freud's authorization. Both prints begin with explanatory titles which mention psychoanalysis and the teachings of “Universität Prof. Dr. Sigmund Freud.” The first image in the German print is the razor being sharpened. Although the variance between these two versions is relatively small, the difference between them amounts to whether there is a framing story or not. The English-language opening recalls the framing story of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Dr. Orth writes case notes, framing the inner story of a disturbed man and securing the narrative agency of the Doctor as storyteller. If we begin the film without a framing structure, there is no narrating agency. While the German print refers to “Der Mann” and “Die Frau” throughout, the English-language print assigns names to its characters. Also, instead of using intertitles, the English-language print superimposes its titles as subtitles over the image. An analysis of the film must take into account the variance in these prints because narrative information is presented in a more redundant manner in the English-language print. For example, while the German print begins directly with the bedroom shaving scene, the English-language print not only establishes the framing “case history,” but follows with explicit subtitles over the shots of Werner Krauss shaving his wife's neck: “Facts of the case: Martin Fellman, a chemist, one morning while trimming the hair on the back of his wife's neck …”

  29. In the English-language print, there is no separate intertitle to interrupt the images. Instead, the subtitle, “Help! Murder! Help!” appears over the image of the woman screaming.

  30. Again, the narrative information in the English print is not supplied by a separate intertitle, but by a subtitle over the image: “He did it with a razor—.”

  31. In the English print, the subtitle “Martin dreamed that …” appears over a shot of the husband in his bed.

  32. This is a translation of the intertitle in the German print. In the English print: “The day before my disorder became apparent, a terrible storm raged.”

  33. Atwell (42) says the optical effects in the dream sequence took six weeks to produce.

  34. Lotte H. Eisner, The Haunted Screen, trans. Roger Greaves (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), 31. Eisner seems to attribute these aspects of the dream sequence to Pabst, not to Metzner or Seeber.

  35. The superimposition of the three tower bells with the three women's faces suggests a French-English pun on belle and bell, a visual pun that would later be used by Luis Buñuel in Tristana (1970).

  36. The English-language print is more explicit about his profession. The subtitle reads: “I am a psychoanalyst; it is part of my work.”

  37. This account is given in Chodorkoff and Baxter, 321, quoted from the unpublished biography.

  38. The Compound Cinema, 412.

Michael Geisler (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Geisler, Michael. “The Battleground of Modernity: Westfront 1918 (1930).” In The Films of G. W. Pabst: An Extraterritorial Cinema, edited by Eric Rentschler, pp. 91-102. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Geisler examines the ways in which Pabst's film Westfront 1918 reflects Germany at the end of the Weimar Republic rather than the events of World War I depicted in the film.]

A number of major texts in film history have never been accorded their due because more popular contemporary releases have pre-empted the audience's as well as the critics' attention and interest. Pabst was twice unlucky in this respect. The Joyless Street (1925) had had to compete with D. W. Griffith's 1924 release, Isn't Life Wonderful?, which dealt with inflation-ridden post-World War I Germany. Likewise, when Westfront 1918 premiered on May 23, 1930 at the Berlin Capitol Theater, it was soon superseded by Lewis Milestone's slicker and technically more sophisticated All Quiet on the Western Front (released in Germany in December of 1930). Milestone's film benefited from the spectacular international success of Erich Maria Remarque's novel of 1929,1 whereas Pabst had adapted a relatively obscure narrative by Ernst Johannsen, Vier von der Infanterie.2

Although present-day critics tend to see Westfront as an achievement of equal value to, or perhaps even surpassing All Quiet on the Western Front, the canon will not be corrected quite so easily.3 In 1961, thirty filmmakers, theorists, critics, and historians were asked the curious question, which films were “most effective” in addressing the problems of war and peace. All Quiet on the Western Front showed up on twelve lists, while Westfront was named only twice.4 Given this kind of reception history, my primary goal in this essay is to open up an access route to the film by exploring how it interacts with the immediate socio-historical and cultural environment, the final crisis-ridden years of the Weimar Republic, and not, as one might expect, its narrative referent, the end of World War I.


Pabst wanted his first “talkie” to reflect the aesthetic potential of sound.5 Both All Quiet on the Western Front and Westfront 1918 established a basic convention of the war film genre; the relentless assault on the acoustic nerves of the audience through the verisimilitudinous reproduction of artillery noise, machine-gun fire, and the screams of the wounded and dying has become a stock component of (most) combat war films, part of a calculated synthesis intended to shock the viewer into reliving the experience of battle.

The film's opening sequence introduces three of the four central characters in a genre picture, or, as Aubry and Pétat call it, an “image d'Epinal.”6 Behind the German front lines, a group of soldiers, billeted in a French house, are shown flirting with a young French woman, Yvette, who lives in the house with her grandfather. We are introduced to the scene through the subjective perspective of “the student.” The jovial “Bavarian” is playing cards with Karl, the only one of the foursome introduced by name and in some ways the film's protagonist. A friendly, but serious and reserved character, Karl is apparently a white-collar worker (in the book he is an engineer). The idyllic scene is suddenly disrupted by a short burst of artillery shelling, during which the student and Yvette discover their mutual attraction.

A brief transition introduces the lieutenant and takes us to the front lines. Shelled by their own artillery, Karl and the Bavarian are buried alive beneath the rubble, but saved by fellow soldiers in a dramatic rescue operation. Since the telephone lines are down, the lieutenant sends the student, as a volunteer, to relay the message that the German trenches are being shelled by ‘friendly fire.’ The student uses the opportunity to sneak back to the village for a brief reunion with Yvette. Returning to the front, he runs into Karl, who is on leave visiting his wife for the first time in eighteen months. Resting on the edge of a shell crater, in the middle of a vast, empty, war-torn landscape, the two soldiers have a chat, with the student telling Karl he is in love with Yvette.

A long transitional sequence follows in which we see a chanteuse and two music hall clowns perform for hundreds of soldiers at a front theater. Besides bridging the gap in narrated time created by Karl's journey home, this sequence gives Pabst a chance to show off the production values of the new sound film.7

Coming home, Karl first runs into a local businessman who asks why they haven't taken Paris yet. Meanwhile, Karl's mother has been standing in line for hours at the butcher's. A neighbor discovers Karl crossing the line to get to his apartment, but the mother, although desperate to see her son, cannot afford to wait for days or weeks for another chance to get a piece of meat. In the end, the store is sold out just as she reaches the entrance.

Entering his apartment, Karl finds his wife in bed with a lover—the butcher's son, who has bought her affections with food. Dumbfounded, Karl stumbles back to the kitchen, picks up his rifle, and returns to the bedroom, where he forces his wife and the lover to kiss at gunpoint, but then his anger gives way to resignation. Dropping the weapon, he sees a draft notice on the table. “You too?” he asks the lover. The man nods and quietly leaves. Karl's wife blames the hunger at home for her actions, repeating stereotypically, “Ich kann doch nichts dafür” (“It isn't my fault”). Karl does not reproach his wife any further, but refuses to show (or accept) any signs of affection during his entire leave, departing without a gesture of reconciliation.

The scenes at home are contrastively interspersed with sequences at the front where, during a sudden attack by French troops, the student is killed in hand-to-hand combat. Her house destroyed by artillery shelling, Yvette is relocated by the German army. She does not want to leave her village, for fear that the student will never find her; she has not heard of his death yet.

Returning to the front, Karl, in an obviously suicidal gesture, volunteers for a dangerous mission ahead of the German front. Although fully aware of the danger, the Bavarian nevertheless goes with him. The lieutenant has been informed that the French are planning a major attack and that he has to hold the line at all cost. What follows are the film's most spectacular sequences, a crescendo of increasingly heavy shelling and massive infantry combat scenes, culminating in a tank attack. In the course of the onslaught, the Bavarian is killed by a French hand grenade, and Karl fatally wounded. In what is probably the best-known shot of the film, the lieutenant, his mind cracked from the insanity of the slaughter, slowly rises from a heap of dead bodies to offer a final, lunatic salute to his unseen superiors.

The final sequence shows the aftermath of battle. A transition shot takes us, along with the mad lieutenant, into an army hospital filled with the screams and groans of the wounded and dying. Before dying himself, Karl experiences a hallucinatory vision of his wife, accusing him of having left her without a reconciliation. “It isn't my fault,” she says. “We are all guilty,” Karl responds in a mumble. Without realizing that Karl is already dead, a wounded French soldier lying next to him takes his hand, and, caressing it slowly, assures him, “Moi, camarade … pas enemie, pas enemie …”

Westfront 1918 was shot during the spring of 1930, after Pabst's return from England, where he had familiarized himself with the new sound technology. Having seen a number of Hollywood sound productions in London, he was very dissatisfied with the way they immobilized camera and crew inside stationary soundproof booths. For Westfront, he chose instead to opt for the far more mobile “blimps,” a soundproof casing which encloses only the body of the camera (with the controls extended through the casing), leaving it free to roam the soundstage. This was all the more important because of the new continuity problems presented by sound. German sound production at the time was still fairly primitive and sound mixing technology was not yet available.

For the combat sequences, Pabst and his editors Hans (later Jean) Oser and Paul Falkenberg inserted pieces of sound track containing the explosions by hand between lines of dialogue, sometimes between words, to match the visuals. The resulting synchronization problems were enormous, since the slightest mistake would make the explosions obscure the dialogue.8 Pabst realized that he could not employ the “invisible cutting” which had become his directorial trademark since The Joyless Street. Relying on the mobility of the blimp camera to the fullest, Pabst used a visual technique he had tried successfully in The Love of Jeanne Ney, a mode of internal montage sometimes referred to as editing-within-the-shot. A pan or travelling shot of very long duration is subdivided by the arrangement and composition of movement within the frame. The careful coordination of camera movement and blocking conveys the impression of a series of different shots organized around a natural dramatic progression.

The first shot of the initial trench sequence demonstrates this technique. Lasting a total of sixty-five seconds, it opens with a “marker”: a not very high-angle view of barbed wire covering the trenches. From the lower border of the frame emerges a group of soldiers led by the lieutenant; tracking with the group, the camera travels to the right along the line of the trench. Hesitating briefly when the lieutenant stops to receive the report, it then leaves him to pick up a group of soldiers entering the frame from behind the officer and follows them to their stations along the battle line. Another halt is motivated by two groups of soldiers who have been waiting in a connecting trench. Again emerging from the lower border of the frame, one troop moves to the left, one to the right; the camera, as if uncertain where to go, first follows the troop moving to the left, but then, reconsidering, resumes its previous track to the right, finally stopping and tilting up to open the view to the area in front of the German lines. In doing so, it defines the stage for the first major explosions which cloud up the image, providing a logical point for a cut.9

Along with the creative use of the long take and the traveling shot, Pabst also exploited the creative tension between sound and image. Characteristically, he used sound as a bridge between sequences. The idyllic scene in Yvette's house ends with an older soldier playfully spanking a younger comrade; at that precise moment, a grenade explodes, thrusting the house into darkness and setting the stage for the war sequences to follow. Similarly, at the end of the front theater sequence, the band plays a marching song which dissolves into another march (Ludwig Uhland's “Ich hatt' einen Kameraden”) played by the band of a troop of young recruits who are leaving Karl's home town for the front. The audio overlap links the two heterogeneous sequences, bridging the time/space ellipsis. Audio-visual counterpoint creates ironic tension and provides a sense of foreboding. As Karl ascends the stairs to his apartment (where he will find his wife in the embrace of another man), the soldiers in the streets sing, “In der Heimat … da gibt's ein Wiedersehen” (“Someday, coming home, we will meet again”).

According to his collaborators, Pabst actively solicited advice from his production team. One of the more impressive shots of the final sequence is said to have been suggested by the cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner. To cover up Gustav Diessl's consummate overacting in his death scene, Pabst told him to simply lie perfectly still, with his eyes open, while Wagner slowly turned a light away from his face. The result is an eerily underplayed, highly suggestive impression of death.

Pabst's editor on Westfront, Hans Oser, claims that Pabst, under pressure from the producers, excised an important scene:

During the last days of World War I it was pretty quiet: the French were living in their trenches, and the Germans in theirs, and really they didn't have a war going between them anymore. And somehow they even had fun with each other; they yelled at each other and all. And there is one sequence then where the French are on their parapets—they are lying in the sun; and the Germans on theirs. And suddenly a German general comes to visit the Front. He comes in, looks through his binoculars, and says: “Are you crazy? Look at them all exposed! Come on! Load! Shoot!” So the Germans start shooting. Naturally, the French immediately make an attack which leads to the end of the movie and the entire slaughter scene.10

If Oser's account is correct, this would be a significant omission. The scene would have been one of the very few moments where Pabst (and scenarists Ladislaus Vajda and Peter Martin Lampel) would have broken through the restrictive perspective of simply showing the sufferings of the common soldier; it might even have been one of the few points where the film would have hinted at an answer to Karl's final self-accusation. As described by Oser, the omitted sequence suggests an allusion to Germany's attack on neutral Belgium at the beginning of World War I and thus could have been interpreted as an admission of guilt.


Summarizing contemporary response to Westfront, Lee Atwell claims: “Although acknowledging Pabst's artistry, the press found little to praise in a work that so graphically showed German military defeat, especially at a time when the country was already primed for another war for the Fatherland.”11 Apart from the historical inaccuracy—in 1930 few Germans were interested in fighting another war—a survey of leading film critics contradicts Atwell's account. With the obvious exception of the Hugenberg press and the fascist papers, most contemporary critics liked the film. Writing in the Berliner Tageblatt, Eugen Szatmari extolled the film's realistic portrayal of the horrors of war, while at the same time pointing to Pabst's refusal of Hollywood-style “realism,” which permits special effects to dominate the narrative. He saw the significance of the principal characters in their function as types, representatives for the millions of soldiers who died in the front lines. Although he criticized Pabst for his inadequate portrayal of the misery and hunger at home, Szatmari concluded: “In the fight against war, this film is … worth more than thousands of books, pamphlets, and articles.”12 In the journal Die literarische Welt, Ernst Blass compared the film to the greatest achievements of the Russian filmmakers, calling it “the first sound film that justifies this invention” and “the most important German film in years.”13 According to Herbert Ihering, the influential critic of the Berliner Börsen-Courier, the film's very strength—the realistic representation of the chaos of war—also provides its central weakness. The chaos is simply duplicated, instead of becoming an integral part of an organized, unified idea. The film “lacks a consistent effect, because it is not based on a specific point of view, because it lacks a guiding idea.” Yet Ihering also praises Pabst for his use of sound, adding that “one can only criticize any aspect of this film after having emphasized that it towers high above the average German production.”14

In his Frankfurter Zeitung review, Siegfried Kracauer, like Szatmari, faulted the film's portrayal of the conditions at home, but he praised Pabst's creativity in handling sound and the film's authentic presentation of the war experience. He strongly recommended Westfront as a historical document: “Already a generation has reached the age of maturity which does not know those years from personal experience. They have to see, and see time and again, what they have not seen for themselves. It is unlikely that the things they see will work as a deterrent, but they must at least know about them.”15 At the time, Kracauer still seems to have believed that works of art might serve as instruments of raisonnement, if not as agents of political change—enough so, at any rate, to recommend the film as a catalyst for the construction of public memory. Sixteen years later, as he settled accounts with Weimar cinema in From Caligari to Hitler, he would reverse his 1930 evaluation. Kracauer now charged Westfront with the same shortcomings traditionally held against texts of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), a weakness consisting in

not transgressing the limits of pacifism itself. This indictment of war is not supported by the slightest hint of its causes, let alone by insight into them. … Westfront 1918 amounts to a noncommittal survey of war horrors. Their exhibition is a favorite weapon of the many pacifists who indulge in the belief that the mere sight of such horrors suffices to deter people from war.16

Not unpredictably, Die Rote Fahne, the Communist Party newspaper, attacked the film's “pacifist obfuscation” which avoided any true criticism of the imperialist war. As Michael Gollbach has pointed out in his analysis of anti-war novels of the Weimar Republic, this was standard procedure: the Communists attacked pacifism even more vehemently than they attacked the militarists on the Right. They considered pacifism a dangerous delusion, since it kept people from thinking about the real causes of war.17 Against this backdrop it is all the more remarkable that Die Rote Fahne's anonymous reviewer, having made his anti-pacifist point, proceeded to commend the film for its “courageous realism” and its lack of sentimentality.18

General audience response seems to have been mixed: several critics report that moviegoers were shocked by the realistic depiction of the slaughter,19 and the Nazis apparently tried to disrupt the premiere, but were shouted down by war veterans.20 Eight months later when All Quiet on the Western Front opened in Berlin, the Nazis succeeded, through riots and mass demonstrations, in effecting the banning of Milestone's film until September of 1931, when a heavily censored version was released. Eventually, of course, the Nazis would get their way with Westfront as well. On April 27, 1933, after Hitler's ascension to power, the film was banned in Germany.

Westfront was widely distributed in France (in a French version and in the original German), and was highly acclaimed by critics there as well as in England, where it circulated on a smaller scale.21 In the United States, the film was handicapped by its release after the spectacular success of All Quiet and James Whale's screen adaptation of Robert C. Sherriff's Journey's End, and by the fact that no English-language version seems to have been available. While the reviewer for Variety, reporting from Berlin in May 1930, enthusiastically extolled “this overwhelming picture with its clear and true to life view on the horrors of war,” the New Yorker, after the American release of early 1931, showed signs of battle fatigue: “It's the horrors of war again, and there are some bits as truly agonizing as anything we have seen of the sort. If you don't know German, however, you are going to be floored by the story.”22 Mordaunt Hall, in the New York Times, conceded that “this film is undoubtedly another good argument against war,” but went on to complain that it was “not a good entertainment,” since “many of the interesting phases of battles are excluded.”23Time, however, hailed the film as “one of the best directed and most gruesome of War pictures,” noting especially that Pabst was less of a moralizer than Milestone. And in what has since turned out to be the blueprint for nearly every German production successfully distributed in the United States, the reviewer gave Pabst credit for creating, with small resources, “a picture that in every technical respect except sound can compete with the best Hollywood product.”24

Although it could never seriously compete with the popularity of All Quiet,Westfront managed to establish itself as one of the premier anti-war films and a brilliant example of a director's optimal use of a new cinematic code, even while the technology still lay in its infancy. In 1960, it was included in a series of articles focussing on “Great Films of the Century,”25 and in 1981, it was one of four Pabst works to be re-released in Paris.26 While it is often grouped with The Threepenny Opera and Kameradschaft as part of Pabst's “Social Trilogy,” this classification is somewhat misleading.27 If there are similar concerns in Pabst's texts of this period, they are to be found in Westfront and Kameradschaft, and not so much in The Threepenny Opera. The two films address a common issue through very different but obviously complementary narratives. Kameradschaft picks up exactly where Westfront leaves off. The fraternization between the French soldier and the dying Karl (“Moi, camarade … pas enemie”) anticipates the solidarity of the German workers overcoming the ideology of the “arch enemy” to come to the rescue of their French comrades. The opening sequence of the two boys, one French, one German, fighting over marbles in Kameradschaft relegates the atrocities of Westfront to the realm of immature behavior. In one often-cited scene of Kameradschaft, an old French miner, seeing the German rescuer approaching with his gas mask over his face, experiences a hallucinatory flashback to the war. And the ironic final sequence, cut from some contemporary versions, returns us to the world of Westfront 1918 with the inscription over the border gate reading “Frontière 1919.” Kameradschaft thus works as a companion piece to Westfront, pointing to the possibility of positive action where the earlier film had been content to show the relatively passive suffering of the soldiers.

In contrast, The Threepenny Opera looks more like a throwback to the chiaroscuro, the decor, and the romantic netherworld of the expressionist phase.28 The painted sets and dreamlike streets of Macheath's Soho have little in common with the documentary realism of the trench scenes in Westfront or the shower room sequence in Kameradschaft. And the steamy intrigues of Polly, Macheath, and Peachum are more reminiscent of the liaisons dangereuses of Pandora's Box than of the cool, detached group portraits of both Westfront and Kameradschaft—which are, ironically, much less illusionist, since the lack of a central identification figure undermines empathy for the sake of a concentration, however distracted, on the narrative itself. I would therefore, as Aubry and Pétat do,29 group Westfront and Kameradschaft together as a diptych which shares with The Threepenny Opera little more than the same moment in Pabst's life.30

The one feature of Westfront that almost all reviewers and critics seem to agree on is the “near-documentary realism” of its portrayal of the war. In fact, the word “documentary” crops up in nearly every article or book written on the film.31 Applied to the context of 1929, “documentary” does more than describe a particular style. It points to a specific period in German cultural history and the aesthetics associated with it, namely the Neue Sachlichkeit.


Westfront 1918 was the first major feature film from Germany to portray life at the front and combat in the trenches, and, apparently, one of the first anti-war features on the international scene.32 Thus, while there were at the time no preestablished patterns of cinematic reception (hence the strong reactions to the vivid battle scenes), the film nevertheless inserted itself into the contemporary discourse of war novels in the late twenties and early thirties. Arnold Zweig's The Case of Sergeant Grischa (Der Streit um den Sergeanten Grischa, (1927), Ludwig Renn's War (Krieg, 1928), Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Western nichts Neues, 1929), Theodor Plivier's The Kaiser's Coolies (Des Kaisers Kulis, (1930), Edlef Köppen's Higher Command (Heeresbericht, 1930), and Adam Scharrer's Renegades (Vaterlandslose Gesellen, 1930) are notable examples of a wave of anti-war novels, most of them thinly fictionalized diaries, that swept Germany during the late Weimar years. They stood in contrast to an equally strong reaction from the Right which valorized the war experience, following the early example set by Ernst Jünger's Storm of Steel (In Stahlgewittern, 1920). While few of these works except for Jünger's diaries have achieved a permanent place in the literary canon, it is important to keep in mind that, at least after 1930, they far outstripped the pacifist literature in terms of quantity (even though none of them attained the popularity of Remarque's book).33 In the years immediately following the war there was, in fact, a surge of books dealing with World War I in which the militaristic perspective dominated.34 Against these uncritical glorifications of the German military, the few critical books that came out during this period could not prevail, particularly since very few of them had the literary qualities of Egon Erwin Kisch's reportage Soldier in the Prague Korps (Soldat im Prager Korps, 1922).

For the first ten years of the Weimar Republic, the interpretation of events as provided by the military thus became the official view of the war. This contributed significantly to the eventual acceptance of the “stab-in-the-back” legend, the myth, promoted by the German General Staff, that the army, undefeated on the battlefield, had been cut down from behind by a war-weary home front.35 These were the specific historical developments to which the neusachlichen war narratives reacted. Among the many radically different, and sometimes even contradictory currents of the Neue Sachlichkeit, the most obviously fallacious, yet most intriguing and influential one, is grounded in the persuasive power of documentary authenticity and factual reportage.36 In an effort to create a critical public sphere through documentary drama and film, through the new techniques of collage and montage, through the newspaper editorial, the muckraking investigation, and the new genre of literary reportage developed by Egon Erwin Kisch and others, critical realists attempted to provide information that would otherwise be restricted to a small circle of industrialists and militarists.

In this light, the pathetic irony of the end of All Quiet on the Western Front assumes an added, political dimension: “He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All Quiet on the Western Front.”37 Hard to translate into English, the original conveys a subtle, yet important variance between the title and the way the line is quoted at the end of the novel: “im Westen sei nichts Neues zu melden” (my italics).38 In the indirect speech, the subjunctive form “sei” contains a basic tension, a claim to put the record straight by telling things as they really were, a claim that informs not only Remarque's book, but most of the anti-war novels and diaries of the time. In Edlef Köppen's Higher Command, the juxtaposition of the official war reports issued by the Army High Command (long documentary inserts taken from official army news releases), and the actual experiences of the soldiers is not only thematized, it becomes the structural basis for a complex narrative montage.39 The documentary realism of the Neue Sachlichkeit, especially in the anti-war novels of 1929-1930, thus seeks to establish a counter-history from below, to undermine the dominant historiography by confronting it with the facts.40

In retrospect, the naiveté of this strategy is apparent. It took the operative fiction of the bourgeois public sphere—the free flow of information as a corollary to the free exchange of other commodities—at face value, as if it existed in historical reality. At the time, however, things may have looked different. The Weimar constitution gave Germany, for the first time in history, something akin to freedom of expression. With the advent of the stabilization period, when it appeared that the fragile Republic might be more robust than any of its supporters had dared to hope, the time seemed right to try and set the record straight. Given the tremendous ideological smokescreens thrown up by the militant Right for more than a decade, was it really such a farfetched idea to think that the public, once confronted with the facts, would stop believing fairy tales? Yet this only partially explains the sudden boom in war narratives and the record-breaking sales of Remarque's novel. What had changed in the fabric of German society to bring about this renewed interest in war narratives in 1929-1930?

No doubt the world economic crisis that began with the New York stock market crash on October 25, 1929 is of importance here. While the crisis hit most Western nations hard enough, the German situation was exacerbated by the fact that people had just barely gained confidence in the economic and political stability of the Republic, based on a mere five years of relative calm and prosperity. Most Germans remembered the decade between 1914 and 1923-1924 as a continuity of war, terror in the streets, massive inflation and unemployment, and national humiliation—this in contrast to a Wilhelmine Empire which, along with authoritarian rule, had brought Germans an unprecedented half century of peace and relative prosperity.41 The crisis reignited the debate about the lost war and its aftermath, for both the Left and the Right, the “root cause” of Weimar's economic and societal woes.42 On a psychological level, the return to World War I went beyond the goal of establishing a cause-and-effect relationship between 1918-1919 and 1928-1929. Rather, the renewed debate amounted to a displaced attempt at coming to terms with the problems of 1929-1930. Besides being its possible “root cause,” the war also provided a convincing metaphor for widespread economic anxieties, feelings of undeserved victimization, and general fears that the fabric of society was coming apart at the seams.43

Many of the literary texts associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit share common thematic and political concerns with the war novels—concerns that go beyond similarities in form and style. The randomization of life (and death) in the city, as expressed in such diverse works as Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf (1927), Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), or Erich Kästner's Fabian (1931), closely resembles the experience of random injury and death in the trenches as related by the war novels and films, with the big city replacing the war as the impersonal agent of fate. The protagonists of these novels—and here one could add Hans Fallada's Little Man—What Now? (Kleiner Mann—was nun?, 1932)—are largely passive individuals, clearly not in control of their own lives, exactly the predicament of the nonheroes of the anti-war novels. Helmut Lethen writes of the death of Erich Kästner's civilian hero Fabian that “the demise of the moralist condemns the survival strategies of all the other characters in the novel as immoral” (and hence, by implication, those of Weimar society as a whole).44 Analogously, the deaths of the four protagonists of Westfront 1918, like the death of Remarque's Paul Bäumer, are not merely an indictment of Prussian militarism, but also an accusation of contemporary society in the late Weimar Republic.45

Against this backdrop, several of the episodes in Westfront take on additional significance: the vagaries of the soldiers' lives, the unexpected strokes of luck which have to be enjoyed with a carpe diem mentality before they dissipate into thin air, as well as the completely unpredictable misfortunes, including sudden death, mirror the incidental perspective in the novels of the Neue Sachlichkeit. This neusachliche mentality is visualized by Pabst in the brief sequence where the student, returning from his short reunion with Yvette, runs into Karl, who is going home on leave. We first see Karl in a long shot as a small figure silhouetted against an expansive wasteland of charcoaled tree trunks, brush wood, and bomb craters. The two then sit down on the edge of a large shell crater, their legs dangling over the side, and share their experiences, chatting happily, quite unperturbed by their incommodious accommodations. Reinforced by the framing (a two shot which excludes the desolate background), this scene recalls Walter Benjamin's classic characterization of the neusachliche mentality: “Never have people made themselves more at home in an uncomfortable situation.”46

The short-lived relationship between the student and Yvette originates during his brief stay at her house. They are separated when the student is called to the front, but he finds his way back, twice risking his life for the chance to spend one night with her. Their eventual separation contains a typically neusachliche sense of irony. As Yvette screams from offscreen for fear that the student might not be able to find her again, the audience knows that she need not bother: he has already been killed. The only difference between their affair and the many nearly identical ones in the ‘civilian’ novels of Neue Sachlichkeit is that here the protagonists' completely randomized existence can “still” be traced back to an identifiable, plausible, if insane, cause: the war. The lieutenant's crazed salute at the end is not merely an accusation of Wilhelmine militarism; it is also an allegorical reflection of the desperate, cynical irony of a middle class and its intelligentsia uprooted not by the war, but by its progressive proletarianization, which became particularly virulent during the world economy crisis.47 Since one is unable (or unwilling) to comprehend the economic forces underlying this process, one must either capitulate to a totally randomized experience (speaking of Neue Sachlichkeit's cynical resignation) or displace the problem to another plane, where a more transparent cause-effect relationship can be substituted. War, being the classic repository of chance existence, is still one step away from complete randomness.

For the writers and filmmakers of the late Weimar Republic, war became a non-synchronous, but identifiable metaphor to express their experience of lost values and identities, their social, economic, and political anxieties. This rhetoric of war is by no means confined to the war novel proper. The protagonist of Kästner's Fabian finds himself in a dream in which he observes scores of people standing on an endless stairwell, each with his or her hand in the pockets of the person on the next higher rung of the ladder, while simultaneously being robbed by the people behind them. Fabian's idealistic friend Labude announces that advent of the age of reason, cheered on by the people, who nevertheless continue to pick each other's pockets. The scene now turns into one of bloody civil war reminiscent of the Spartacus uprising, with figures shooting from windows and roof tops. The people on the stairwell take cover, but continue to steal from each other; they are killed with their hands still in each other's pockets.48 Kästner's text foregrounds the interrelationship between economic exploitation, the failure of the German Enlightenment, and apocalyptic violence, doubly displaced, however, onto the level of moral exhortation and the realm of dreams. Similarly, Pabst thematizes, in the scenes between Karl, his wife, and her lover, the interdependence of economic reification (she sleeps with the butcher because he provides her with food), political events (the draft notice), and ethical values (Karl is admonished by his mother and his wife not to apply the yardstick of “normal” moral behavior to extreme situations). Karl's subsequent death in battle is the direct result of his inability to adapt to a system of ethics predicated on the commodification of values. The privileged position Pabst grants to the homecoming scene suggests that the discussion of value commodification is the film's hidden center—a reading already established in the preceding scene when the mother must suppress her desire to welcome her returning son in the interest of keeping her place in line at the butcher's.

This interpretation would go beyond a reading of war as a displaced metaphor for the general uncertainty of the times. It would align Westfront with the concerns expressed by Pabst in such apparently different texts as The Joyless Street and Pandora's Box by revealing, at the heart of the text, a reflection on the reification of ethics and human relationships, an issue which is one of the central themes of the Neue Sachlichkeit. Pabst throws Karl's character into higher relief by giving him a name rather than a simple designation like “The Bavarian,” “The Student,” “The Lieutenant.”49 This underscores the importance of the character in the narrative's overall configuration. Together, the three types constitute a microcosm of the German class system: the proletarian, the officer, and the academic (who doubles as the youth). Karl's brief encounter with the capitalist adds a crucial social type. Pabst thus gives, on the one hand, a dispassionately “objective” account of the war, taking pains to relate it to all facets of German society, which is offset, on the other hand, by a subjectivized approach showing the dehumanizing effect of the war on the personal sphere. The overall impression is one of pervasive destruction.


The operative limits of Westfront are circumscribed by the limits of liberal opposition to war, a framework in which war is understood and presented as a natural disaster, inexorable, incalculable, inescapable. As Richard Whitehall puts it, Pabst's preoccupations “are not those of a man running counter to popular thought,” but instead have to be seen as “the reliable reflection of liberal European thought in general.”50

However, it is this seismographic consciousness (along with Pabst's undisputed directorial skills) which makes Westfront such an extremely intriguing text after all. By keeping viewers at arm's length from most of the character types, Pabst denies them genuine identification, avoiding the empathic short-circuit so characteristic of many war films. This effect is further enhanced by the contradictions in Karl's personality; in collapsing the barriers between public sphere (front) and private domain (home), the film transcends both its own dichotomous vision and the limitations of the war film genre. War is shown as an overwhelmingly destructive social force which cannot be contained either geographically (at the front) or psychologically (by seeking salvation in interpersonal relationships unaffected by the war experience).

The only real escape from war is incidental, ephemeral, and bracketed in time and space (as in the student's brief, risky reunion with his lover). When projected against the portrayal of war as all-encompassing destruction, affecting every aspect of human interaction, the film's vignettes of evanescent happiness, culled from the surrounding chaos, are precise visual analogues to their counterparts in Steppenwolf or Fabian, with war, in Westfront, replacing less clearly defined agents (the Big City, modernism, vague notions of objectification) as the displaced cause for the destruction of values and lives. These surprising analogies between a classic war film and key texts of the Neue Sachlichkeit point to underlying affinities extending far beyond the pale of the war novels proper.

However, the dominance of the war metaphor in texts of the Neue Sachlichkeit, at least on the left-liberal side of its spectrum, cannot be explained in terms of a particular Weimar predisposition towards militarism. Nor is Peter Sloterdijk's interpretation of Weimar culture's use of “the front” as a metaphor for the Republic's modernist cynicism entirely convincing.51 I would instead suggest that the pervasive rhetoric of war, even on the Left, points to an awareness among Weimar intellectuals of living in an uncertain peace beneath which the real conflicts behind World War I remained unresolved. In a recent book on the Holocaust, Arno J. Mayer calls the time between 1914 and 1945 “the second Thirty Years War,” referring to the continuing tensions and armed conflicts in Central Europe.52 It is this sensibility, the feeling of existing in a temporal no-man's-land somewhere between undeclared peace and undeclared war, which finds its most characteristic expression in the texts of the Neue Sachlichkeit.Westfront supplies the key visual image for this sensibility: the meeting between the student and Karl, in the middle of a wasteland, where the two sit on the edge of a crater. The quintessential expression of the neusachliche perspective on life—“chatting on the edge of a shell hole”—is the Weimar Republic's equivalent to Paris dancing on a volcano.


  1. In Germany, Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues) sold more than one million copies within sixteen months of its first publication by Ullstein Verlag in January of 1929; by the end of 1929, the book had been translated into twelve languages. See Michael Gollbach, Die Wiederkehr des Weltkrieges in der Literatur (Kronberg/Taunus: Scriptor, 1978), 42. It is probably to this day the single most popular book ever published by a German author.

  2. Translations of Vier von der Infanterie (Hamburg: Fackelreiter-Verlag, 1929) supplied some of the various alternative titles of the film in foreign releases: Four Infantry Men, Comrades of 1918, Shame of A Nation. In France, the film is generally known as Quatre de l'infanterie.

  3. “The controversy over the superiority of All Quiet or Westfront continues today. Both are distinguished movies, but Pabst's film is probably the better.” See Jack Spears, “World War I on the Screen,” Films in Review 17 (May-June/July 1966): 361. Spears argues that Pabst's film has “more sustained realism” and “less sentimentality” than Milestone's. Compare also William Uricchio, “Westfront 1918,” in Magill's Survey of Cinema. Foreign Language Films, 8 vols., ed. Frank N. Magill (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Salem, 1985), 7:3350: “Unlike the more successful All Quiet on the Western Front,Westfront 1918 avoids sensationalist pathos and emotionalism, providing instead a sober exposé of the consequences of war.”

  4. Robert Hughes, ed., Film: Book 2. Films of War and Peace (New York: Grove, 1962), 154-202.

  5. See Noël Carroll, “Lang, Pabst, and Sound,” Ciné-tracts (Montreal) 2.1 (Fall 1978): 15-23.

  6. Yves Aubry and Jacques Pétat, G. W. Pabst (Paris: Editions l'Avant-Scène, 1968), 333. This is an apt comparison, as it links the sequence to the rich but largely neglected tradition of popular visual narrative. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the French city of Epinal was the center of the illustrated print, a medium, which, at that time, played a similar role in the popular imagination as film and television have in this century.

  7. Here, as in other parts of the film, Pabst takes great care to expose the viewer to a variety of German dialects. This is a feature the film shares with much of the contemporary war literature, a reminder that, for many of the soldiers, the encounter in the trenches with comrades from all over Germany was also the first physical experience of their country as a united body, the German nation-state being less than fifty years old.

  8. Gideon Bachmann, “Interview with Marc Sorkin,” in “Six Talks on G. W. Pabst,” Cinemages (New York) 1.3 (1955): 39.

  9. This kind of precision work within the frame was possible because Pabst, according to his assistant director, editor, and long-time collaborator Paul Falkenberg, usually set up, blocked, and shot entire sequences with the final edited product already firmly in mind. See “Six Talks on Pabst,” Cinemages: 44.

  10. Bachmann, “Interview with Jean Oser,” in “Six Talks on Pabst,” Cinemages: 60.

  11. Lee Atwell, G. W. Pabst (Boston: Twayne, 1977), 80.

  12. Eugen Szatmari, “Westfront 1918,Berliner Tageblatt, 25 May 1930.

  13. Ernst Blass, “Neue Filme,” Die literarische Welt 6.23 (6 June 1930): 7.

  14. Herbert Ihering, “Westfront und Cyankali,Berliner Börsen-Courier, 24 May 1930. Reprinted in Herbert Ihering, Von Reinhardt bis Brecht. Vier Jahrzehnte Theater und Film (Berlin/GDR: Aufbau, 1961), 3:308-309.

  15. Siegfried Kracauer, “Westfront 1918,Frankfurter Zeitung, 27 May 1930.

  16. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), 234-235.

  17. Gollbach, Die Wiederkehr, 309ff.

  18. Westfront 1918. Ein pazifistischer Tonfilm,” Die Rote Fahne, 27 May 1930.

  19. See Kracauer's review and the one in Die Rote Fahne. According to some accounts, up to twenty people are supposed to have fainted during the premiere.

  20. Richard Whitehall, “Westfront 1918—Great Films of the Century No. 5,” Films and Filming, 6 (September 1960): 34.

  21. Whitehall, 34, and Atwell, 80-81.

  22. “Mag.,” “Four Infantry Men,Variety, 18 June 1930, 55; “J. C. M.,” “The Current Cinema,” The New Yorker, 28 February 1931, 59.

  23. Mordaunt Hall, “The Screen,” The New York Times, 20 February 1931, 18.

  24. “The New Pictures,” Time, 2 March 1931, 26.

  25. Compare Whitehall.

  26. Along with The Joyless Street,Kameradschaft, and the French production Salonique, nid d'espions (Mademoiselle Docteur). For contemporary reevaluations, see Renaud Bezombes, “Les perdants de l'histoire,” Cinématographe (Paris) No. 65 (February 1981): 57-59; and Daniel Sauvaget, “Quatre films de G. W. Pabst,” La Revue du Cinéma, No. 359 (March 1981): 43-48.

  27. See Atwell, 75.

  28. See Lotte H. Eisner, The Haunted Screen, trans. Roger Greaves (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), 317.

  29. Aubry and Pétat, 333.

  30. If one insists on looking for a trilogy, I would suggest that, had he been given a chance to do it, Pabst's unrealized script, War is Declared, sold to Paramount in 1934, might have been a more likely candidate than The Threepenny Opera. Peter Lorre was to have played a wireless operator on an ocean liner who, as a hoax, tells the passengers that war has broken out: “The tranquil, friendly atmosphere of the ship becomes divided into combative camps along nationalist lines. When they ultimately learn of the hoax, they are shocked into a realization of their folly and are made to realize their common humanity” (Atwell, 116).

  31. Aubry and Pétat speak of “cet aspect documentaire” (333); Falkenberg mentions Pabst's “penchant for the documentary touch” (50); Bezombes singles out “la veine documentaire” (57); and Sauvaget talks of “les charactères réalistes, quasi documentaires” (46).

  32. Although not conceived as an anti-war film, King Vidor's The Big Parade seems to have been the first American production to be received as one—due mostly to its realistic trench sequences.

  33. Gollbach, Die Wiederkehr, 276.

  34. Hans-Harald Müller, Der Krieg und die Schriftsteller. Der Kriegsroman der Weimarer Republik (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1986), 20-35.

  35. This was the almost inevitable result of the rigorous censorship exercised by the German Army High Command throughout the entire war, particularly after the Marne battle. See Kurt Koszyk, Deutsche Presse 1914-1945 (Berlin: Colloquium, 1972), 21. See also W. Nicolai, Nachrichtendienst, Presse und Volksstimmung im Weltkrieg (Berlin: Mittler und Sohn, 1920). Nicolai's report is a revealing, if obviously biased, insider account by the officer in charge of public relations and censorship.

  36. For a critique of the Neue Sachlichkeit as a coherent movement comparable to, for instance, Expressionism, see Jost Hermand and Frank Trommler, Die Kultur der Weimarer Republik (Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1978), 119.

  37. Erich Maria Ramarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, trans. A. W. Wheen (New York: Fawcett, 1987), 296.

  38. Erich Maria Remarque, Im Westen nichts Neues (Berlin: Ullstein, 1976 [orig. 1929]), 204.

  39. For an in-depth analysis of Higher Command, see Martin Patrick and Anthony Travers, German Novels on the First World War and Their Ideological Implications, 1918-1933 (Stuttgart: Akademischer Verlag Heinz, 1982), 129ff.

  40. I am speaking here of only one of a number of rather heterogeneous currents within the Neue Sachlichkeit. Edmund Gruber's attempt to synthesize all the various types of war novels under the common label of ‘objectivism’ is highly problematic, given the political and aesthetic contradictions within the movement. See “Neue Sachlichkeit and the World War,” German Life and Letters 20 (1966-1967): 138-149. See also Müller, 306n.

  41. See Walter Laqueur, Weimar. A Cultural History 1918-1933 (New York: Putnam, 1974), 2-3.

  42. Gollbach, 2.

  43. The documentary pull of the naturalistic descriptions of combat scenes and the seemingly autobiographical first-person narration has been so strong that Remarque's book, even today, is read in introductory social science courses as reportage on World War I, rather than as a comment on the contemporary Germany of 1929 (at, for example, Boston University). I am indebted to Michael Kaern for this reference.

  44. Helmut Lethen, Neue Sachlichkeit 1924-1932. Studien zur Literatur desweissen Sozialismus” (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1970), 143.

  45. Compare Remarque, Im Westen nichts Neues, 184-185: “What will our fathers do when we will stand up and come forward and demand that they justify their actions? What do they expect us to do when the time comes where there won't be any war? … What will happen afterwards? And what is to become of us?” (My translation—M.G.)

  46. Walter Benjamin, “Linke Melancholie,” Gesammelte Schriften, 4 vols., ed. Hella Tiedemann-Bartels (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972), 3:281.

  47. Compare Ernst Bloch's concept of nonsynchronicity, developed against the historical backdrop of the late Weimar Republic, and first outlined in his Heritage of Our Times. See the German original, Erbschaft dieser Zeit (Zurich: Obrecht und Helbling, 1935).

  48. Erich Kästner, Fabian, in Gesammelte Schriften für Erwachsene, 8 vols. (Munich and Zurich: Droemer Knaur, 1969), 2:124-126.

  49. This is a significant departure from Johannsen's story, where only “The Student” is typified. “The Bavarian” has a name, and “The Lieutenant” of the film replaces another (named) character. Although he appears in the book, the Lieutenant plays only a minor role.

  50. Whitehall, “Westfront 1918,” 34.

  51. Peter Sloterdijk, Kritik der zynischen Vernunft, 2 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1983), 2:748-754.

  52. Arno J. Mayer, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? (New York: Pantheon, 1989).

Eric Rentschler (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Rentschler, Eric. “The Problematic Pabst: An Auteur Directed by History.” In The Films of G. W. Pabst: An Extraterritorial Cinema, edited by Eric Rentschler, pp. 1-23. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Rentschler discusses Pabst as a “problematic” figure in cinema.]

“None of us who knew Pabst well felt that we ever knew him at all. He was all things to all men, and nothing consistently. He would argue any side of the question with apparent complete conviction and sincerity, but to see this happen over and over was to suspect that he had no convictions at all. He worked like a scientist, presenting stimuli to his actors and watching their reactions with a cold-blooded detachment. He never made any comment, never explained himself. I always felt he lived his life completely alone.”

—Louise Brooks, in conversation with Richard Griffith1

“Whereas the greatest artists carry their times, Pabst, as a passive contemporary, is carried by the times. He follows. Expressionism, naturalism, sexualism, Freudianism, internationalism, anti-Nazism, exoticism, Nazism, de-Nazification, mysticism, agnosticism; all of the phases experienced by his nation and his class appear again during his artistic career. This is not to say that he was a man without faith. On the contrary. But he received his faith and strength from the current trends, being too susceptible and too irresolute to find them in himself.”

—Barthélemy Amengual2

“Whether dealing with ‘content’ or ‘form,’ Pabst operated as a metteur en scène. He lacked a bold conception of film language, and was never the radical agitator some mistook him for.”

—Edgardo Cozarinsky3


G. W. Pabst is film history's ultimate nowhere man. An ambiguous figure, he remains a director whose biography and oeuvre do not readily lend themselves to fixed paradigms or comfortable generalizations. To speak of him as “problematic” seems warranted, given the word's multiple connotations: unresolved, hard to place, somewhat suspicious. Critics describing Pabst and his films invariably resort to formulations involving vacillation, oscillation, and uncertainty,4 to evaluations marked by frustration, disappointment, and anger.5 At one time an artist with a solid position in the canon of international cinema, he has been increasingly displaced, reduced to a tragic case, an instance of an individual compromised by his own lack of substance and subjectivity.6 Karsten Witte, echoing a phrase used by Harry Alan Potamkin to describe The Threepenny Opera, locates the “extraterritorial” as the privileged site in Pabst's Shanghai Drama, a space that in fact governs his work over many epochs in quite different settings.7 The term is an apposite one, I think, in the way it characterizes not only Pabst's films, but indeed his life, not only the content of his texts, but their formal shape as well, not only his curious relation to contemporaries, but also his disenfranchisement by film historians.8

The extraterritorial citizen is both a representative and an outsider, someone whose real place is elsewhere, a person who lives in one country while subject to the laws of another. Pabst, without a doubt, embodies this dialectical condition, a suspended state in both time and space. He never seemed to be identical with where he was: during the Weimar Republic, Pabst gained the reputation of a “red” and an internationalist, someone given to the seductions of foreign models, be they Soviet or American.9 When he went into exile, he was not able to adapt to foreign situations, to escape the suspicion that, deep down, he was a German after all.10 (He was, of course, Austrian by birth.) It is difficult to speak of Pabst as a German director with the same conviction used to discuss valorized figures in that national film history. Indeed, other famous emigrants like F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, despite similar changes of locale, remained true to themselves in the face of challenges to their integrity and vision.11 Flexibility and lack of fixity, both in his life and in his work, become recurring themes in approaches to Pabst. It stands to reason that his favorite actor, Werner Krauss, and his most striking female persona, Louise Brooks, have so often been eulogized as chameleon-like spirits and ambiguous entities, in keeping with a director who himself was a creature of many masks and, so his critics would have us believe, a man without qualities.12

Perhaps, though, there is a more profound logic to this seeming indeterminateness, to this constant state of personal and textual instability, of not being quite at one with one's place, in one's life, in one's fictions. To be sure, Pabst's narratives feature a continuing cast of nomads, exiles, transients: the wayfaring apprentice Arno (The Treasure), a man not at home in his own household, whose greatest fear is his own dreams (Secrets of a Soul), treacherous and slippery Khalibiev (The Love of Jeanne Ney), fugitives from the Law like Lulu (Pandora's Box), inner emigrants (Don Quixote), a social climber never happy with his station, never secure in his place (A Modern Hero), individuals on the run from contemporaries, misunderstood by their times (Komödianten and Paracelsus), Carl Maria von Weber on the way to Prague (Through the Forests, through the Fields). These films, for all of Pabst's ostensible “realism” and social authenticity, seem more convincing in dissolving spaces, collapsing borders, leading the viewer inevitably and inexorably into singular, frenzied, indeed extraterrestrial milieux: the exotic climes of a dreamer, the brothel as an Arcadian site, the subterranean realm of desire in Atlantis, the eerie laboratory of Paracelsus where one searches for an elixir of life, the expansive bowels of the earth in Kameradschaft and Mysterious Depths, networks of trenches and corridors (Westfront,The Last Ten Days), an imaginary city inhabited by spies, collaborators, foreign interests (Shanghai Drama), make-believe London on whose streets walk Jack the Ripper and Mack the Knife.

The logic of extraterritoriality inheres in the formal shape of Pabst's films as well. He would enter film history as the master of fluid editing, whose continuity cutting would break down class borders and transcend spatial demarcations, unsettling, confusing, and recasting, a textual strategy that makes transitions unnoticeable and at the same time renders conventional distinctions inoperative.13 The knife serves as the dismemberer's privileged instrument; the tool figures as a conspicuous and continuing preoccupation throughout Pabst's work, as a motif, an obsession, an objective correlative to a mind interested in segmenting and reassembling, dissecting and undoing. Social observer, scientist, and sadist, the director captures his audience in a calculated play of distance and suspense, dispassion and identification, a game commingling displeasure and fascination. Blades sever links and create new boundaries. Mirrors, likewise, fix identities and confound the self. It is fitting that Pabst's early study of male anxiety, Secrets of a Soul, introduces both props into the opening sequence as pliers of uncertainty. Mirrors shatter with regularity in Pabst's cinema (as in The Love of Jeanne Ney or The Trial); they reveal images of our worst presentiments (the husband's self-denigrating travesty in Komödianten); they show us an askew world for what it is (the tilted frame we see in reflection in Shanghai Drama). These reflections, like Pabst's continuities, are spurious ones, in keeping with a cinema of false identities and unfixed borders, a place where spectators never really feel at home.

Pabst, too, is a homeless person, consigned by most film historians to the lesser lodgings of those who have lost their once considerable fortune. In the early thirties, Paul Rotha spoke of Pabst as “perhaps the one great genius of the film outside Soviet Russia, approached, though in an entirely different manner, by Carl Dreyer, Chaplin, and René Clair.”14 His career interrupted and sidetracked by exile, ultimately betrayed by re-emigration, Pabst would never find firm footing or regain his directorial hand after first leaving Germany.15 He is considered a seminal figure in Weimar cinema who, unfortunately, continued making films after 1931. The major studies of the director concentrate on the pre-1932 work as the only examples worthy of sustained discussion, as if the subjectivity (never a stable one at that) we associate with the signifier “Pabst” broke down, becoming an increasingly moot and, in the end, all but indistinct entity. The later films destroyed Pabst's reputation, causing us to relativize the importance of even his most revered efforts: Pabst appears now to have never been all there—a director without conviction, someone bound by circumstance and context. Had he died after completing Kameradschaft, he would, no doubt, figure much more centrally in our notions of international film history.16


At one time an ambassador for film art held in high international esteem, Pabst, was subsequently perceived as a betrayer of realism, an apostate and accommodator.17 Declared persona non grata, he was expelled from the Pantheon of cinema. His work flopped in France, failed miserably in America, hit moral rock bottom in Nazi Germany, and never recovered in a host of postwar sites. The espouser of a social film, the unrelenting observer, the progressive activist dissolved and disappeared, causing much concern, bewilderment, and irritation among his former defenders; Pabst, the “failed realist” remained the governing paradigm in film historiography into the fifties.18 With the rise of auteurism and a different inflection in standards of critical measure, Pabst now came under attack for his lack of a persistent vision, for his thematic meandering and his overall uncertainty. Present-day notions still feed on this image of the auteur manqué: “The Zeitgeist,” claims Edgardo Cozarinsky, “if anything, speaks through his work and makes it refractory to any politique des auteurs approach.”19 More virulent yet, David Thomson views Pabst as a prime example of authorial incapacity: “Few careers probe the theory of the director's influence on film more embarrassingly than Pabst's.”20 Even at his best (prior to 1932), Pabst still suffered from impersonality, contentism, and superficiality; his social studies and authentic dramas do not lend themselves well to searches for creative volition behind the text. Oddly enough, ideologically encumbered artists like Leni Riefenstahl would find a more sympathetic reception among auteurists. Her formal achievements and aesthetic will outweighed the blatant political inscriptions of her films, it seemed. As the sixties progressed, Riefenstahl would enjoy increasing critical favor; at the same time, Pabst all but fell out of sight.

To a degree, then, the ostensible discourse of Pabst is a function of discourse about Pabst. The harshness of recent reckonings extends not only to the post-Weimar output that had troubled Pabst's contemporaries and caused his erstwhile champions to despair. The fierce taking of stock exerts a retrospective force as well, neutralizing the entire corpus, rendering the figure as a lesser light, a surveyor of social surfaces, a craftsman whose talents were ones of organization and instrumentation—and definitely not mise en scène. A cinema of extraterritoriality and an extraterritorial career, Pabst's work and life fail to impress with a first person. If we choose, as the politique des auteurs did, “the personal factor in artistic creation as a standard of reference” and assume “that it continues and even progresses from one film to the next,”21 then Pabst does not stand up well to his competitors.

The cards have been stacked against him, to be sure. Even his most uncontested films—The Joyless Street,The Love of Jeanne Ney,Diary of Lost Girl—underwent substantial revisions at the hands of censors and foreign distributors, making them at times all but incomprehensible. A director lauded for his invisible editing, he found his carefully crafted work recut, indeed mutilated. Other films simply no longer exist and can only be discussed on the basis of contemporary reviews. In the United States, only a bare dozen of Pabst's thirty-three films—many in questionable versions—are presently available, all of them either Weimar or Nazi films.22 In this way, our images of Pabst accord to a very limited access to his work, a quite circumscribed notion of his career as a whole, a critical methodology that posits his lack of directorial personality, and a current situation that, by and large, does not allow us ready opportunity to test these notions on the basis of his entire work. What is uncertain here is not only Pabst's presence, but the presence of his films—and present-day images of him and his oeuvre which derive from partial evidence and superannuated paradigms.

The present collection of essays seeks to rethink Pabst's films as a textual body and to reconsider his career as a whole. An important element in these approaches is an examination of how Pabst has been imaged by contemporaries and subsequent historians and the way in which these portraits involve insight and oversight. The contributors here have a variety of motivations and clearly different agendas. Some revisit Pabst to establish links between the discourses of the films and the social discourses in which they are embedded. Others use his films to actualize or dramatize certain current debates about such matters as spectatorship, gender, and subjectivity. In several instances we find appreciations of works obscured by the passage of time as well as research offering missing information. And, in the case of the Nazi films, we encounter the first substantial attempts to engage (but not indulge) Pabst's output at its most problematic. The following comments provide a backdrop for the volume as a whole, setting the individual essays within the life's script of one of film history's premier displaced persons.


The first shot of Pabst's first film fixes on an edifice, a house, the dwelling of a bell-founder somewhere in Southern Styria, Pabst's homeland. This is a precarious structure: it has once before burned to the ground and will come crashing down at the end of the film. The film explores the foundations of the house, offering glimpses of the space's interior topography on a map, revealing hidden secrets as its inhabitants skulk through dark corridors and labyrinthine passages. The initial sequence contrasts images of apparent domestic stability (a craftsman, his wife and daughter, an assistant) with ones of wandering. The final scene will picture a couple disappearing into the distance, their goal uncertain, at best an undefined away-from-here: flight from a site of greed and calamity, escape from a home that no longer exists. Beate and Arno move down a road into the receding spaces before them, away from the camera in a deep-focus composition, from a full foreground into the uncertainties of a vanishing point. If Pabst's cinema is one of extraterritoriality, The Treasure (1923) stands as a compelling founding text, a debut film that points ahead in various directions.

Bernhard Riff does much to rethink popular notions of the film as simple fantastic indulgence couched in a fairy-tale world, insisting that the studio-bound production involves constructive energies from different directions, a curious mix of expressionism, impressionism, and naturalism which makes the film hard to place. As Riff points out, critics, oddly enough, tend to locate the film in a medieval setting, despite clear markers that fix it in a much later period. Riff initially clarifies our understanding of the film's own relation to its textual basis, the egregious blood-and-soil fustian of Rudolf Hans Bartsch, as well as the manner in which it addresses a contemporary context of inflation and anti-Semitism. Seen in this light, The Treasure ceases to be an example of “classical expressionism,” a film “set in an imaginary medieval locale … against an architecture of bizarrely distorted forms.”23 Instead of concentrating on composition and set design alone, Riff scrutinizes the film's play of oppositions at both a thematic and a stylistic level. The Treasure suggests the way to The Joyless Street, from a rudimentary cinema of contrast and obvious formal dialectic to a more ambiguous exploration of space, a less certain mode of providing spatial orientation, a finding he demonstrates with a scene near the film's end. Breaking out of a pattern of contrasts, of cross-cuts between frenzied gold-seekers and innocent romantics, a schematic textuality, Pabst surprises us by dispersing the camera eye, displacing it into an unseen space that opens up when the couple enter a room. If there is a logic in Pabst's development, suggests Riff, it has to do with a movement towards a cinema which denies us easy fixities and collapses firm foundations.


The Joyless Street (1925) explores an equally tenuous space, a locale without orientation, a site of aimlessness and anxiety: the street. In Pabst's film, big city avenues do not offer succor to the flâneur and serve as semiotic playgrounds which inspire reveries and dream-images.24 Here one does not walk; one waits. Unlike Kracauer's “Wartende,” however, spirits living in abeyance, devoid of religious sustenance, plagued by feelings of alienation, bereft of hope and orientation, Pabst's protagonists seem frantic, possessed, and angry.25 It is not horror vacui or temps morts they face, but rather the urgency of the most immediate material concerns. The author of From Caligari to Hitler would chide the director for his insufficient depiction of the inflation era and its ambience of economic chaos and moral ambiguity. Many progressive contemporaries nevertheless viewed the film as a stirring “moral protest, if not a socialist manifestation.” Pabst, according to Kracauer, did not go far enough, even if he clearly grasped the social dimensions of the predicament. His realism was undermined by both the film's melodramatic schematics and his infatuation with his female players.26

Patrice Petro's discussion of The Joyless Street, part of her lengthier study on Weimar cinema and photojournalism, stresses an extra territory worthy of exploration and explanation: the place of women.27 Petro suggests a similarity between the way female figures are positioned in this film and how they were positioned by the cinematic institution in the mid-twenties. Put another way, we find a convergence between the women who wait and the women who watch: both harbor an intense anger and dramatic potential, an excess that spills over into the filmic fiction and—censor officials feared—activates latent energies averse to patriarchy. Pabst's recourse to melodrama here, according to Petro, does not vitiate the film's realism; it heightens the value of The Joyless Street as a document telling multiple stories and reflecting the non-simultaneity between male and female responses to modernity. The film features two dramas, that of Grete Rumfort and that of Maria Lechner. The first is a tale of virtue rewarded, the second one is less reassuring. Rather, it exudes “guilt, desire, and repression,” incorporating a woman's frightful recognition of her lover's betrayal (in a shot taken from behind a patterned window which evokes a similar scene in Secrets of a Soul) and her murderous impulse—and deed. Maria acts out a repressed female anger, an anger that returns with a vengeance in the film's closing sequence, despite the seeming neatness with which Grete's destiny has just been resolved.

The denouement betrays signs of editorial intervention which render it seemingly incoherent and yet strikingly emphatic. Petro sees the passage as the manifestation of an uncontained female ire, drawing attention to a singular motif to essentialize the dynamics: the images of Maria's friend, who stands outside the butcher's shop and demands entry, “knocking, then pounding, as if to express the force of an ineffable desire and anger.”28 The final version of the film depicts the result of this unleashed potential (the butcher's bloodied face) even if the actual murder scene has been excised, apparently by the censors. In this reading, Pabst becomes a filmmaker who surveys the same site and reveals its different realities, engaging both the male anxiety of the Angestellten class as well as acknowledging female rage, supplying in the end two resolutions, one comforting in its patriarchal logic, the other transgressive in its expression of repressed female desire.29


Secrets of a Soul (1926) is both symptomatic and ironic, a text that reflects the double concern of many important Weimar films. It interrogates male subjectivity and, likewise, the nature of cinema itself, providing a scintillating metafilmic inquiry. Focussing on a troubled psyche, the film discloses an unacceptable identity, an alternative person and unbearable self, a man who can no longer direct his own actions. The protagonist slips from the symbolic into the imaginary, regressing from the head of a household to a dependent child and mother's boy. The film's dynamics will allow him to reassume, in a hyperbolic and overdetermined way, a position of authority and control over himself, his household, and his wife. Cinema, likewise, appears here as a medium whose task it is to order images, to provide pleasing self-images, to harness the seemingly irrational and arbitrary. The impetus of film and psychoanalysis is a common one: both involve a medium, both have to do with a quest for narrative, both also employ similar mechanisms, acting as institutions, dream factories, indeed textual apparatuses, as Anne Friedberg points out in her contribution. Pabst, argues Friedberg, succeeded—despite Freud's own misgivings and hostilities—in translating a talking cure into a silent film. In so doing, Pabst created a dynamics wherein the analyst in the text corresponds to the analyst outside the text, placing the spectator in a discursive relation to the onscreen exchange.

In Friedberg's discussion of the suggested equation “between dream analysis and film analysis,” it becomes apparent that Secrets of a Soul presents much that remains, in the end, unanalyzed and left out of the psychoanalyst's closing statement. In essence, we find an element of repression in the doctor's account. What results is an ironic tension between the exclusions of the inscribed explanation and our knowledge as onlookers of what it leaves out.30 As Friedberg puts it: “The spectator of Secrets of a Soul is positioned as a more astute psychoanalyst than the fictional surrogate.” It would seem, then, that Pabst's cinema calls into question the power of simple answers and straightforward solutions. The psychoanalytical treatment will exorcise the impossible self, banish the man's feelings of insufficiency and trace them back to a childhood trauma, and enable him once again to wield the phallus. Nonetheless, certain excess baggage remains: we can never really dispel the possibility of a liaison between the cousin and the wife. He lurks offscreen with the wife when the husband returns home, suggesting another scene in keeping with the patient's worst dreams. And, to be sure, the wish-fulfilling final sequence provides an all too neat bit of closure; the resolution is overly emphatic, almost hysterically thorough. The doctor urges his subject at one juncture to tell him everything that passes before his mental eye. Later, he prompts the troubled man in no uncertain terms: “Do not repress a single thought, even if you think it is unimportant or absurd.” In this way, the film establishes certain standards that are not fully met by the would-be practitioner. The film analyst is challenged to do better.

Secrets of a Soul, from its very first shots, provides the spectator with an admonition not to be deluded by initial impressions, not to be fooled by spurious connections. The opening image shows a strip of material being used to sharpen a blade, suggesting a strip of celluloid and the hand and tool that cuts it. The introductory passage makes it clear just how convincingly editing can manipulate and distort. A number of shots lead us to believe the husband and wife are in the same room; eyeline matches and directionals deceive, though, for the two inhabit separate spaces and are hardly as intimate as it would seem: a wall stands between them, in fact. The editing creates a false image that we come to recognize as such after we regain our bearings. In the same way, the psychoanalyst edits a story derived from his patient's mental images, a “final cut” that seems to edify. If the psychoanalyst entered the man's life by returning a key, it is significant that the object both opens and closes, just as the ultimate explanation privileges certain moments and memories while blocking out others. The epilogue, which otherwise would be superfluous, provides a further perspective beyond the initial closure, one both ironic and unsettling.31

The final sequence contains a fair bit of residue from the main body of the film: we see the now vigorous man pulling fish out of a stream, recalling the dream image of his wife pulling a doll from the water. During analysis, the doctor “read” the image as one suggesting “an imminent or desired birth.” The moment is pregnant with possibility, but the undeniable link between the two “scenes” is immediately disavowed as the man dumps the bucket of fish back into the water, thus aborting meaning, graphically depressing any recall of the disturbing premonition of his wife's infidelity. The ensuing handheld shot of him bounding up the incline to his wife recalls the first shots with an outside perspective—glimpses of onlookers and police running toward the house of murder—echoing again in all the apparent exuberance another previous instance of disquiet. What about his fears of a woman with an independent gaze (something the film confirms as not his projection alone) and a sexuality that excludes him? (Is their child also his child—or his cousin's?) The film deals with secrets of his soul; it also suggests that his wife may have ones of her own. As he rejoins his spouse on the hilltop and lifts their child, we remember an earlier fantasy image of togetherness and fertility against a white screen backdrop. There is no trace now of the cousin; that disturbing factor has departed. The pair exists in a no-place, a utopia of wishful thinking, a dreamscape. Once again, certain footing gives way to precarious ground and here the film ends.


In Pabst's rendering of Ilya Ehrenburg's novel, the love of Jeanne Ney takes precedence over the forces of revolution and history. The adaptation enraged the author, who protested that Ufa had depoliticized and trivialized his book: “With what moving idiocy do they latch onto foreign names and props in order to fabricate yet another bit of nonsense with the best of all happy ends!”32 Do the happy end and the overall affirmative dynamics of The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927) substantiate the claims that Pabst compromised Ehrenburg, buckling under studio pressure to fulfill Babelsberg's desire to emulate Hollywood, to make a film about Soviet experience, but in the American style? David Bathrick remains sensitive to the film's many determinants, its inherently contradictory project “as an attempt to negotiate precisely the conflicting discourses of Soviet and American styles … as they influenced Weimar cinema.” A progressive film artist working for a studio hardly sympathetic to his politics, Pabst steered a cinematic course that maneuvered between differing notions of montage and divergent approaches to the representation of history. Both a social document and a melodrama, the film provides a striking sense of milieux, place, and time, yet likewise privileges a character and an aesthetics working in opposition to “the film's understanding of itself as an historical or social document of twentieth-century life.” Pabst empowers Jeanne's gaze and allows her focus ultimately to determine how the narrative will unfold: namely, as “an inexorably forward-moving love story which subordinated history to the overriding imperatives of melodrama.” As in The Joyless Street, Pabst studies a historical setting and supplies multiple “fixes” on a time and its places. Jeanne stands as a curious expression of extraterritoriality, a variation on Pabst's cinema of life in the elsewhere: her perspective freely dispenses time, granting us access to the past (three flashbacks) and disposing over the future (two flashforwards). She administers story—and yet she embodies a force whose personal volition militates against history at large. In a manner similar to the epilogue of Secrets of a Soul, her happiness comes at the cost of the film's ultimate retreat from the world of social reality and historical process, a private triumph in a sphere determined above all by generic dictates.


Woman's position in The Love of Jeanne Ney at once activates story and enervates history. A circumscribed frame of reference, Jeanne, like other female protagonists in Pabst's narratives, is a source of control and disturbance. The dominion of Louise Brooks exerts an even more compelling power; her fascination as a screen presence and a fictional character threatens the very authority of the director himself. Critics have repeatedly suggested that the ultimate energy fueling Pandora's Box (1929) comes from an actress's sterling performance and persona rather than Pabst's directorial intelligence, in essence recasting the auteur in a secondary role as recorder; if he showed any talent here, it was above all his aplomb with a found subject.33 The two essays in this volume devoted to Pabst's films with Louise Brooks, Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), remain much more skeptical about the ostensible sovereignty ascribed to women in Pabst's films and Weimar cinema as a whole.

Mary Ann Doane and Heide Schlüpmann both agree with Thomas Elsaesser that Pabst represents “sexuality in the cinema as the sexuality of the cinema.”34 Sexuality stands out as a remarkable zone of disturbance both in Pabst's works and the discussions of them. In his reading of Pandora's Box, Elsaesser stresses Lulu's androgyny and indeterminacy, seeing her as image incarnate, as an embodiment of cinema and its imaginary arsenal; if Lulu, as he claims “is forever image,” she represents the hopes vested in filmic modernism.35 Doane scrutinizes the same image and, likewise, recognizes how Lulu's countenance interrupts narrative flow in an otherwise classical continuity and fragments space by dint of its eroticism. In fact: “In her most desirous (and disruptive) state, Lulu is outside of the mise en scène. There is a somewhat fantastic hallucinatory quality attached to her image.” This image fascinates and frightens, existing above all in the space of male projection, both for the needy men in the text and for smitten male critics outside the film.36 If Lulu exists as an embodiment of male lack, she bears a Pabstian inflection: despatialized and ahistoricized, a freefloating signifier, circulating in a sphere of desire and obsession, subject to the Law of an endangered subjectivity. Contrary to Elsaesser, Doane sees the sexuality of Pabst's cinema, at least in the case of Pandora's Box, as a lethal one. Lulu may fascinate, captivate, and scintillate; in the end, she—and every other trace of femininity in the film—“constitutes a danger which must be systematically eradicated.” Pabst's modernism of disjunctive cuts and disturbed identifications places woman in an extra territory governed nonetheless by conventional notions of sexual difference.

Heide Schlüpmann's article on Diary of a Lost Girl likewise insists that the enigma of woman in cinema is that of male projection. As an institution among others in Weimar Germany, cinema served to assist in the reconstruction of a mortally wounded patriarchy, participating in a larger project of restoring certain privileges and powers. This, in Schlüpmann's account, explains the particularly strained and precarious position of woman within Pabst's narrative as well as the problematic situation of the actress before the camera and the female spectator in the cinema. Pabst's second film with Louise Brooks involves a lost girl—and a lost diary, a personal voice present in the literary source not incorporated in the adaptation and ultimately abandoned as a prop in the film (it simply disappears without explanation). A floundering personage, Thymian is cast out of her home, separated from her father, and deposited in a brutal reform school. Distraught and disaffected, she escapes into a brothel, finding there what would seem to be a modicum of stability in a scenario that otherwise denies her happiness and succor. Throughout it all, and even in the apparently Arcadian bordello, Thymian is the object of an everpresent monitoring institutional gaze. The would-be kind madame with her eyeglasses replicates the workings of the filmic apparatus as a whole; just as she oversees the goings-on in her house, so too does the enunciator behind the camera exercise a specular omnipotence. Diary of a Lost Girl offers the male spectator a position similar to the filmmaker's imagined control over his objects. Female suffering corresponds to lacking male presence; in this way, the absent-present male viewer “can always imagine himself to be the basis and fulfillment of this erotic longing.” Male fantasy finds its ideal partner in a sadistic apparatus with which the male spectator can readily identify, for it restores lost power and authority. The female spectator retains at best a secondary identification with the Brooks character, an alignment with a self-denying and diminished image of woman.


No matter the gender, claims Thomas Elsaesser in his study of The Threepenny Opera (1931), identification does not come easily in Pabst's cinema or in Weimar film. Contrary to what previous critics have maintained, The Threepenny Opera does not compromise Brecht's anti-illusionist impetus, relativizing “epic” subversion and undermining the play's critical impact. Employing a strategy similar to David Bathrick's, Elsaesser views the adaptation on its own terms, instead of reiterating the well-known brouhaha about putative creative and political violence wreaked by the director on a progressive author. Rather than chide the director for his betrayal of Brecht's discursive endeavors, for his atmospheric effects, artificial sets, precious camera work and impressionistic lighting, his fetishization of female physiognomies, Elsaesser glimpses in the film a remarkably incisive attack on social reality and established authority.37 Pabst, unlike Brecht, did not stop at exposing the gap between bourgeois illusions and bourgeois institutions, revealing the bankruptcy, immorality, and ruthlessness of middle-class ideology.38 The filmmaker addressed power at its base and traced the appeal of authority to its source, namely “the duplicity of representation” itself, refunctionalizing the cinematic medium—in a way not contemplated by Brecht—as a means to depict and dismantle the modern machinery of false images and affirmative culture.

As an artist, Pabst, so it would seem, wavered between realistic impulse and fantastic indulgence; his films move back and forth between social surfaces and exotic depths, traversing alternatively gritty streets and artificial interiors, peregrinating from concrete settings to imaginary locations. In a related way, Pabst is identified as a filmmaker caught between a reverence for the classical continuities (seamless editing, cause-and-effect narrative construction) and an attraction to certain modernist techniques, endeavoring to be both popular and progressive, accessible and transgressive.39 Elsaesser sees these oppositions as specious, unequal to the textual challenges of The Threepenny Opera, whose hero, Mackie Messer—like Lang's Mabuse and Haghi—is a man of many guises, a figure who exists, above all, as an illusive, fascinating, and seductive image. Macheath dramatizes and embodies Weimar film's awareness of the “fascination of the false,” assuming (how could it be different?) a curious status and eccentric position as pure surface, show value, fetish, as gaze and gesture which control the narrative and yet become the ultimate objects of on- and offscreen spectators as well. The most telling space of the film, avers Elsaesser, is a no-man's-land of imaginary effects which reveals symbolic functions, “a kind of meta- or hyper-space of representation … constructed in the form of an infinite regress, en-abyme, in which a show appears within a show, a frame framing a frame.”

Elsaesser's conclusions illustrate a basic variance in recent discussions of gender in Weimar cinema.40The Threepenny Opera revolves around illusionary appearances and imaginary spaces, disclosing the appeal and dominion of sham organizations (beggars, police, criminals, banks, entertainment apparatuses) in a play of props, dummies, and doubles. Macheath, according to Elsaesser, bears out the fact that in matters of gender “the power of fascination is ambivalent.” The character assumes a position redolent of Lulu, both center of attention and producer/product of the narrative action. (Doane would stress, however, the different ways in which the two narratives ultimately dispose over these images.) Pabst's film grants Polly at one point the definitive enabling power in German film, that of invisibility. She stands as an unseen authority to which thieves-turned-bankers defer. If the illusion of the image triumphs in The Threepenny Opera, it appears here in the guise of a woman who assumes the power of the image defined in male terms.


Polly's sovereignty might, of course, be read differently, as a mirror reflection of a precarious subjectivity that exists as a shell and an empty signifier, or as the appearance of an illusion, every bit as much of a void as her male counterpart, Macheath, for whom she acts as a stand-in during the bank scene. Her reign is of short duration, at any rate: the final sequence will show her looking at the returned Mackie in rapture as he performs with his old war comrade, Tiger Brown. Viewed as a whole, Pabst's films feature men with deficient egos and indeterminate identities governed by frenzy, anxiety, irresolution. Caddish bon vivants and avuncular lechers abound, from Khalibiev and Raymond Ney to Meinert and Henning (Diary of a Lost Girl), the forsaken and betrayed lover in Shanghai Drama, Philine's would-be rapist in Komödianten, or the effete abductor of Through the Forests, through the Fields.Westfront 1918 (1930) and Kameradschaft (1931), quite conspicuously demonstrate the dynamics of the male bond and, as social documents, articulate the fluidity between men's self-images and their images of women.41

Michael Geisler shows how Westfront breaks down borders, spatial and temporal ones. Perhaps because the film destroyed boundaries in such a thoroughgoing way, it was criticized for its lack of “consistent effect” and a “guiding idea” (Herbert Ihering) amounting to, at best, “a noncommittal survey of war horrors” (Kracauer). As a pacifist exclamation, it situates soldiers, regardless of homeland, as inherent allies, as brothers under the uniform. The vicissitudes on the battlefield extend to the homefront where starvation and desperation also take their toll. Geisler explores how Pabst's war film displaces the bewilderment and chaos of late twenties Weimar onto the historical site of World War I, replacing the city of New Objectivity with the horrors of modern warfare and suggesting a perceived affinity between metropolis, modernity, and apocalypse. A further transgressed border, as Barthélemy Amengual indicates, is that between the realism of the trenches and combat and Pabst's visual expressionism of markers and signs, a function not so much of aesthetic zeal as of a will to capture dynamics that reduce the natural to mere raw material, the human shape to abstract form.42 At the center of the film, in Geisler's account, is an idyllic moment of repose in a barren landscape which in nuce characterizes the neusachliche condition. Karl and the student recline at the edge of a bomb crater and make themselves comfortable. They speak of plentiful food in Brussels, a joyful return home, and, to be certain, of their mutual desire for missing women. The intimate moment ends in a shared gaze, a pat on the back, and laughter. We then cut to a large hall and watch a lively audience partake of a revue whose first offering is a song by “Miss Forget-Me-Not.” The camera fixes longingly on her legs and her performance, not for a moment allowing one to forget the special place of women, even in the revelry of the male bond.

Kameradschaft contains many links to Westfront and can, as Geisler says, be seen as a continuation of the earlier film: the opening agonistic struggle between two boys over marbles reasserts as puerile the oppositions overcome by Westfront. The closing sequence of Kameradschaft celebrates international worker solidarity—but appearances deceive. The jubilation of the moment is undermined by a scene which reinstates the underground border between France and Germany—the “Frontière 1919” the narrative had sought to render inoperative. The old arrangement is put back in place as government officials look on; a document passes from one side of the barrier to the other, representatives sign and stamp it. For Russell Berman, this is not just an ironic epilogue. It corresponds to the hollowness of the film's overall message, essentializing the manner in which the text breaks down national borders only to erect others. The workers of the world, in Berman's provocative allegorical reading, unite—not against management or political oppression, but rather in a struggle against nature itself, against subterranean powers beneath the earth's surface and in their own persons. Male solidarity, in fact, seems grounded in a conspicuous exclusion of women, having as its criterion an embrace of one's like with decidedly homoerotic overtones. Kameradschaft, as a historical document, provides in retrospect an etiology and a pathology, unwittingly presaging the collapse of internationalist ideals and demonstrating why working-class comradeship would succumb to the forces of reaction. In this vein, the film offers insights into “the libidinal economy” of instrumental rationality as internalized by the proletariat. If anything prevails, it is repression, denial, and discipline, the powers of technology and organization. Women no doubt play a diminished role in this scenario, a subordinate element on the margins of the narrative; they wait before the mine gates and demand entry. They embody a potentially disruptive energy we have seen explode in The Joyless Street, an energy restrained in Kameradschaft in a way that makes it all the more conspicuous.


In keeping with tendencies in German cinema prompted by the switchover to sound technology, Pabst's career became an increasingly international one, with a single production like The Threepenny Opera encompassing two language versions with different casts and variant running times; critics began to voice suspicions that Pabst, like many of his peers, was escaping into a world of elaborate sets, high production values, and artificial effects. (Thomas Elsaesser has addressed how we might come to different conclusions.) While conservative and nationalist sensibilities exercised a growing grip on film production in the Germany of the early thirties, one found fewer outspoken and engaged films and a larger number of generic effusions that, in Rudolf Arnheim's description, took flight “from the horrors of reality into the horrors of irreality.” According to Arnheim, The Mistress of Atlantis (1932) demonstrated how a once politically correct, intellectually ambitious, if not artistically overendowed, filmmaker had fallen prey to outside pressures and run for cover.43

Karl Sierek's analysis of selected fragments from the relatively unknown film presents it not as a document of artistic ambiguity lacking authorship, or a spiritual impasse, but rather as a work that interrogates the cinematic apparatus itself, revealing the processes of representation, enunciation, and spectatorship in the guise of a crazed man's retrospective tale of search and desire. Saint-Avit's peregrination into an imaginary realm, into the world of Antinea and Atlantis, involves a quest to find his missing friend, Morhange—and more. In Sierek's essay, The Mistress of Atlantis amounts to a subterranean fantasy, an allegory of a cave, indeed a film about cinema, whose narrative gaps open up the functionings of meaning construction, whose breaks in patterned identification (matching eyelines and directionals) divulge other spaces and different sites, allowing the (male) viewer at once to study his onscreen surrogate and recognize the pathological constitution of the subject by a projection mechanism. Treading a nether world of dream and fantasy, The Mistress of Atlantis offers a modernist experiment. Here “the screen no longer presents the world of film, but rather the world of cinema,” a primal realm in which male desire becomes intoxicated with the image of a woman, but above all recognizes itself as a split entity, as a subject whose ultimate object is the image of its own self.


A Modern Hero, so runs common consensus, marks the downfall of the once modernist filmmaker/hero, the director repeatedly celebrated in the journal Close Up and lauded as late as 1933 as Europe's “strongest director” and a source of continuing hope. In the words of Harry Alan Potamkin: “To find in the bourgeois cinema, within its commercial realm, as socially conscientious an artist as Pabst is indeed a discovery!”44 Unlike Lubitsch or Murnau, Pabst did not travel well. Contrary to Lang, he lacked the will to assert himself, “the arrogant, hard-nosed tenacity and ruthlessness to survive in the Hollywood studio.”45 The sojourn in the United States (Pabst's second one) would prove traumatic, resulting in what seems to have been a compromised film by a filmmaker who would never recover from the experience. This is a narrative shared by a wide spectrum of commentators, from Leni Riefenstahl46 to Lee Atwell.47

Jan-Christopher Horak has done thorough detective work, tracking down correspondence, documents, and press releases, offering a more exact account of what transpired during this period. In looking through Pabst's correspondence with Warner Bros. officials about A Modern Hero, we indeed bear witness to a tense exchange; the director received repeated admonitions to respect the script, to heed editing conventions, to provide more close-ups and backup footage. It is indeed an instance of a foreigner being forced to toe the line; as Hal B. Wallis insisted to his employee, “You will have to get used to our way of shooting pictures.”

Horak goes on to scrutinize the final product and recognizes much that would suggest a not utterly compromised endeavor. We find a trajectory quite in keeping with other Pabst films: an ever-wanting male subject rises in the world on the shirt tails of women, ultimately capitulating in the wake of financial ruin and domestic catastrophe, retreating to a domineering mother and contemplating a return to Europe, in a conclusion that replicates Kracauer's privileged Weimar scenario, wherein a thwarted son takes refuge in a maternal lap. As Horak observes, Paul Rader is a problematic figure, a questionable focus for spectator identification. The precarious happy end involves an overdetermined regression, an Oedipal fixation with incestuous underpinnings. More than just a critique of capitalism, a disillusioned rendering of the American dream, a film about the signifying chain love, sex, and money, Pabst's sole Hollywood film is a distinctly perverse text that despite differences of place and production can be read within the logic of his previous—and subsequent work.


The pre-1933 films of Pabst have a consistent cast and an insistent dynamics. They feature the obsessed, the dispossessed, the displaced, the placeless, figures without shelter, individuals orphaned, women waiting and men on the run, a cinema of extraterritorial uncertainty in which characters exist on dangerous ground, where history provides the most uncommodious sanctuary, where utopian dreams betray above all a will to renounce the real. Pabst respected, confronted, and reflected upon the constructive potential of a machinery anchored in a harsh reality and circumscribed by inhospitable constellations. Despite imposing circumstances, he gained world renown and wide admiration during the Weimar years, standing as a role model for a cinema of the future, an individual admired for his courage and conviction. He would pay the price of these convictions, leaving Germany as the nation journeyed into night, recognizing that the country had no place for his like.

An exile by choice, Pabst once again (he had been imprisoned in a P.O.W. camp during World War I) became an extraterritorial citizen, crafting films that turned on this dilemma. One might call Don Quixote (1933), High and Low (1933), and Shanghai Drama (1938) his “Emigration Trilogy,” films that, despite their differences of time and place, explore the problematics of exile. A tri-lingual production in Pabst's rendering, Don Quixote offers a tale of a man who takes flight from mercenary contemporaries and changing conditions into a realm of enchantment and adventure. It is likewise a tale of male desire for an idealized image of woman; if any obsession sustains the hero's readings, it is an unrequited erotic energy. The drama unfolds as an episodic, indeed epic, construction.48 The film's opening sequence shows the printed words of the Cervantes novel, leafing through the volume as words give rise to moving images, the animated figures of Lotte Reiniger. We then see the transfixed reader as he declaims an epic romance and we watch a film portraying the mental images that come of these encounters. The final shots picture a broken man, incarcerated and disenfranchised, his treasured tomes burning in a public square. (Pabst finished the film late in 1932 prior to similar demonstrations in Nazi Germany.) We hear the knight's funeral dirge and watch the apparatus reconstitute his story from the flames, the reverse-motion photography reclaiming, in an act of discursive resistance, the pages with which the film began.

High and Low, the trilogy's second leg, is not just a failed comedy of manners, a jejune example of French Poetic Realism, as is commonly maintained. Does it make sense to read this film within the contexts of generic convention or a national cinema? asks Gertrud Koch. Is there not something inherently eccentric and singular about a German-language crew filming a Hungarian play about a Viennese apartment house in a Paris studio with a cast of French players and German emigrant actors? In her reevaluation of High and Low, Koch discovers a document about “social rupture and displacement,” a work that lacks local color and folkloric detail precisely because its emphasis lies elsewhere. High and Low, the product of an exile ensemble, portrays the destiny of emigrants, “stranded souls, rising and descending, individuals whose cards have been reshuffled, who lack the security of social fixity.” A comedy about an unbalanced world, it destabilizes—without putting things back into place in the end. Even the male icon, Jean Gabin, undergoes a transformation, an education at the hands of a woman. Emancipation and sexuality, it would seem, do not have to be mutually exclusive. The pert schoolteacher and the sensitized soccer player escape convention and a closed community, although the film denies us easy confirmation that paradise is near; as Koch concludes, “Whether they have arrived in a lovers' seventh heaven remains anyone's guess.”

Shanghai Drama seems to issue from an opium den. It supplies a hyperbolic extension of the Pabstian topography: more imaginary than The Threepenny Opera or The Mistress of Atlantis; a sultry space of intrigue and excess which rivals The Love of Jeanne Ney; a hallucinatory dreamscape similar in its punitive surrealism to Secrets of a Soul; a sphere of melodrama, noir, and spies whose prime locations are streets, a night club, and a torture chamber, whose leading players are both conspirators and performers. Contemporary critics laughed it off as a crude spy thriller, an absurd genre film that demonstrates “the exigencies of exile and the stupidity of producers,” whose director “isn't really here at all, except for a few seconds in a neat knifing,” as Graham Greene wrote in 1939.49 A film whose plot is confused, indeed obscure, this would seem to be, as James Agee opined, André Malraux's Human Condition “redone for the pulps.”50

In Karsten Witte's analysis, the film makes conceptual and narrative sense if one discerns the historical inscriptions and grasps the text as not just pure escapism or a romantic potboiler, but takes its neon-light promise as its premise. The film, quite literally, portrays “le rêve de Shanghai,” a spectacle of estrangement and displacement, thematizing exile as a continent and a condition. Shanghai Drama unfolds as a melodrama about dislocation where exiles seek escape to yet another station, where local inhabitants breathe uneasily in an ambience of foreign opportunism and imported cabal, where all involved remain subject to a constantly shifting and arbitrary Law. Shanghai stands as an emblem for the exotic, a cipher of the emigrant's uncertainty; Shanghai Drama, observes Witte, provides an interesting station in a directional career increasingly on the run from history, evidence that the filmmaker was quite conscious of his fugitive status and its precarious terms.


For complex reasons, the prodigal Pabst visited Austria and, as World War II broke out, found himself a captive of circumstance, as in 1914, in the wrong place at an unpropitious moment.51 He would later deny he had collaborated or conformed in his return to the German film industry, now under the tutelage of National Socialism. He is reputed to have kept a diary during these years, although it has thus far not been made available for public scrutiny.52 The completed films Pabst did leave behind have done irreparable damage to his image. Depending on one's perspective, they amount to aesthetic bankruptcy, redeemed at best by hints of a former mastery, on the one hand, or signs of opportunism and accommodation, proof of the director's inherent lack of volition. Anke Gleber's contribution on Komödianten (1941) and Regine Mihal Friedman's analysis of Paracelsus (1943) do not seek to point fingers and condemn Pabst, nor do they skirt difficult questions catalyzed by problematic films. Eluding sweeping judgments and avoiding neat cubbyholes, the two look at Pabst's costume dramas in the discursive context out of which they arose and in which they functioned.

Pabst's NS-films involve misunderstood geniuses, individuals whose great contributions to German culture receive retrospective tribute by a modern state film machinery. Caroline Neuber, actress and activist, envisions the German drama of the future and a more mature national audience, although she will see neither within her lifetime. Komödianten offers a monument to a failed genius, a woman whose triumph would consist of having given birth to a national theater. According to Anke Gleber, the film portrays Neuber as a self-denying and masochistic facilitator, a maternal figure who relinquishes her own desire for the sake of a larger calling. Quite literally, we will see how a dying woman becomes the material for the edifice celebrated in the closing sequence: the camera dissolves from a shot of Caroline's mid-body to the exterior of the National Theater where young Lessing's play is to premiere. With its cast of Käthe Dorsch, Hilde Krahl, and Henny Porten, an actresses' film for a female audience, Komödianten might at first glance be mistaken for an anomaly, a Nazi film that empowers women. An exchange between Neuber's surrogate daughter, Philine, and her protectoress, the Duchess, is crucial. Philine describes Caroline as “a great woman who had the stuff to be a great man!” The Duchess protests: “Stop! Neuberin should remain a woman and prove what we women are capable of!” The ideological mission of the film, claims Gleber, lay in addressing women left on the homefront of 1941 while their husbands were away at war. Komödianten is a Nazi woman's film, offering figures of identification and, ultimately, positions one was meant, by implication, to assume. Not so much a genius as an object lesson, Caroline Neuber, the activist and midwife, became the stuff for a Nazi film that evoked passions and freed feelings, “all the better to serve as a model of female submission for wartime female spectators.”

Where we can locate Pabst in these texts remains difficult: Komödianten and Paracelsus maintain a thematic consistency, it is true, and contain episodic structures and nomadic narratives typical of previous films. Still, even if Pabst apparently resisted the State film apparatus, greeting certain projects with uneasiness, it remains hard to find ambiguity in these quite tendentious productions.53 What one can fix is the position these films assumed in a larger discourse, in Nazi culture and German cinemas, in Pabst's career and subsequent discussions of his work. Paracelsus is generally read as a curious blend of Autorenkino and Nazi film, one of Pabst's “most brilliant films” (Lee Atwell)54 and yet, “not quite so politically innocent as some would have it” (David Stewart Hull).55 Clearly the film reflects Nazi cinema's penchant for reaching into the grab bag of history and ransacking it for political purposes, transforming past events and personages into myth—the “tamed richness” spoken of by Roland Barthes which one alternately evokes and dismisses. One takes liberties with the past for a good reason: what really is at issue are present-day agendas. Paracelsus is a surrogate Führer, a genius ahead of his time, someone in touch with the elements, nature, and folk, a thinker who eschews narrow categories and embraces a wider view of things.

Regine Mihal Friedman shows how the sixteenth-century scientist was pressed into the service of Nazi hagiography, going on then to look more closely at the film's formal dynamics beyond blatant ideological histrionics. She concentrates on what she terms a “zone of disturbance” at the film's center, a moment of textual excess—a dance of death followed by a procession of flagellants—which serves no narrative purpose, but stands out markedly, so much so that most commentators have singled out these scenes as striking and noteworthy. This sequence, in Friedman's mind, serves a mise en abyme function, at once essentializing the film's own workings and yet turning in on the film as well, offering a glimpse at the ambiguities of its construction. The images of possessed dancers and tormented bodies present a discourse on the “manipulation of the human” and “the mechanization of the living,” expressing “the frenzied desires of bodies to be liberated, but also to be disciplined and punished.” Herein rest energies harnessed by National Socialism and inscribed in this film, a work that ultimately ruptures into a stunning “commentary on the present in the form of a grotesque tableau.”


The films Pabst made after 1945, with several exceptions, came under even harsher criticism than his Nazi output. The postwar work bears the label of genre and formula: costume dramas, literary adaptations, sappy melodramas, historical reconstructions, and even a bit of Heimat sentimentality. Hopelessly out of step with history, behind the times and unable to catch up, Pabst had lost all incisiveness. “In fact, the former advocate of social realism moved increasingly toward a position of mysticism or romantic evasion.”56 The career of the late Pabst is a study in desperation: a bombastic attempt at rehabilitation (The Trial, 1948),57 a subsequent casting about in the international scene (a failed production company in Vienna, Italian co-productions of little note), an odyssey that even included the ultimately forsaken plan to film Homer's epic about the long return home of a warrior. Pabst's own return to German-language productions hardly found admiring audiences and enthused critics. His melodramas, The Confession of Ina Kahr (1954) and Roses for Bettina (1955), appeared as recourses to the Ufa entertainments of the Nazi era, virulent manifestations of his own artistic deterioration. The two retrospective readings of the Third Reich, The Last Ten Days and The Jackboot Mutiny (both released in 1955) betrayed Pabst's predilection for wallowing in effects and obscuring causes. The historical portraits revisited the attempt on Hitler's life and the Führer's final days in the bunker, replicating a wider mythology of the Adenauer period which displaced guilt onto an inexorable destiny, portraying National Socialism as evil incarnate, a plague upon mankind. Freddy Buache castigated Pabst in no uncertain terms: “As a loyal servant to official morality, he makes excuses and provides the regime with alibis, or rather, he takes refuge in comfortable melodrama. He has become a zombie-director. His death, no doubt, occurred in 1932-33.”58

These harsh judgments seem to obviate any need to scrutinize the later films more carefully. Yet when we do look at them with more attention and less impatience, we find much that warrants interest and extended discussion, even if these films hardly recommend themselves as misunderstood hallmarks of postwar European cinema. Based on a novel by Rudolf Brunngraber, The Trial is about a son who bears false witness against his father. A Jewish boy, cajoled, hounded, and seduced by mercenary opportunists, serves reactionary forces in their anti-Semitic campaign, a reenactment of an actual court case in late nineteenth-century Hungary. (Pabst had already contemplated a similar project early in the thirties.) The chauvinists conspire to force the youngster to claim he saw his elders commit the ritual murder of a village girl, prompting the boy to describe a fictional scene of violence allegedly glimpsed through a keyhole. Point of view becomes a prime issue in this primal scenario about an errant son made by German cinema's premier prodigal spirit. In his attempt to resurrect a forsaken legacy of social criticism and realistic resolve, Pabst placed the Jewish community between the fronts, at the mercy of larger political interests, a plaything for parties on both sides of the ideological spectrum. In a study of projections and false images, as Karl Prümm makes clear, we see precious few glimpses of the Jewish citizenry except from an outside perspective. Unlike Pabst's most compelling dramas about the disenfranchised, the ostensible objects of his sympathy do not enjoy a convincing presence—either as voice or gaze—in The Trial. For all of Pabst's great ambitions, Prümm concludes, the film disappoints because its critical viewpoint remains so short-sighted.

Pabst's postwar melodramas involve sadomasochistic dynamics that abound with excess and perversion. Roses for Bettina might be productively compared to R. W. Fassbinders's Martha (1973): both end with female protagonists paralyzed and dependent, bound to weelchairs and subservient to dominant—and creepy—males. There is a similar logic and common strategy at work in Diary of a Lost Girl,Shanghai Drama,Komödianten,The Confession of Ina Kahr, and Roses for Bettina, where “the structures of melodrama preside with such triumphant aggressiveness, excess, and imperialism that one thinks Pabst … is making an anti-melodrama.”59 Tormented and destructive males (especially the self-effacingly sinister Paul of Ina Kahr portrayed by Curt Jürgens), jealous father figures, sacrificial heroines—and outbreaks of textual hysteria (what Amengual calls Pabst's “fêtes”60) mark these shrill and overdetermined narratives, films one could well reconsider in terms of a shrewd mise en scène that undermines trivial stories.

Marc Silberman views Pabst's final years and his creative decline in the context of postwar German cinema as a whole. Adenauer's Federal Republic was a time and a place not beholden to creative impulse, stylistic zeal, and alternative endeavor. The film apparatus of the fifties in Germany did not allow authorship to flourish: think of the directorial fates of returned exiles like Fritz Lang and Robert Siodmak and the difficulties experienced by outspoken spirits such as Wolfgang Staudte. In this way, The Last Ten Days becomes a function of an era's tunnel vision, a spectacle of history made with a documentary zeal and told from a melodramatic perspective, serving in the end to mystify fascism and cloud memories of that past, while participating in a larger collective desire to ward off traumatic and unpleasant recollections. History becomes melodrama, a tale of disintegration and male hysteria, an account of a demented figure's fantasies and fantasms in a subterranean setting. Here, too, we find one of Pabst's famous celebrations, a delirious scene where people become grotesque marionettes, mechanical bodies. Human beings succumb to an abandon that renders them frenzied apparatuses caught up in a dance of death. With visual attention and spectator interest bound in a fascination with a madman's delusions and his minions' desperate final hours, it makes sense, as Silberman argues, that the voices of resistance, conscience, and morality ring hollow and do not convince.

Several words about Pabst's final film, Through the Forests, through the Fields (1956), are in order. Its first shot provides an almost ironic textual allegory, essentializing the dialectical relationship between male self-images and men's images of women we find in so many of Pabst's films. The miniature of a woman, the famous opera singer, Caroline Brandt, rests on a Count's phallic soldierly headdress, suggesting her surrender and his conquest—an illusion on both counts, we will soon learn, a fraud and a fantasy. The Count has in fact acquired the portrait through a ruse. The film unfolds as a struggle between two men for the woman's favor. Count Schwarzenbrünn, a dandy and an idler, lacks a steady presence in his moribund existence. His competitor, the composer Carl Maria von Weber, needs his lover's voice and person as a medium for his music. In the end, the musician will triumph as his “Romantic Fantasy” is performed in a village square. What triumphs above all is the composer's own romantic fantasy—the phantasm of a woman. The last shot of Pabst's last film is striking: an artist looks offscreen during a moment of seeming victory, seeking the affirmative gaze of a woman who stands outside of the image, invisible, yet potent, the source of recognition the man needs if his success is to be complete. If the first image of Pabst's cinema showed us a house with questionable foundations, the last shot of his work fades out from a subject whose identity rests on equally precarious ground.


  1. Paul Rotha and Richard Griffith, The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema (London: Spring, 1967), 584n.

  2. Barthélemy Amengual, G. W. Pabst (Paris: Seghers, 1966), 16. Amengual goes on to quote Glauco Viazzi's appraisal of Pabst from 1949: “Pabst is a director who, bound to history, always wanted to answer questions posed by history. But first, he submits to history.”

  3. Edgardo Cozarinsky, “G. W. Pabst,” in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, 2 vols., ed. Richard Roud (New York: Viking, 1980), 2:752.

  4. A preferred locution is the phrase “between,” a measure of Pabst's allegedly mercurial disposition, his constant indecision. In the end, one often simply speaks of him as someone whose mind and person pose an unsolvable riddle. See, for instance, Eric Rhode, A History of the Cinema from Its Origins to 1970 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976), 190: “He is the most impassive of directors, the cold surface of his films being about as yielding as the monocled eye of a Junker officer. He remains enigmatic at every level; and whether or not he intended to be so, or was in fact ingenuous, is part of the Pabst enigma.”

  5. See Rotha and Griffith, Film Till Now, 582ff. Griffith, in his reckoning with Pabst's career, shares Kracauer's analysis that the so-called social trilogy—Westfront,The Threepenny Opera,Kameradschaft—manifests a fatal political ignorance and ultimately “showed unmistakable symptoms of immaturity” in lacking awareness of one's historical spectatorship (582). “Pabst's case,” Griffith observes, “is a subtle, knotty and perhaps an insoluble one. … It is an all too significant commentary on film commentators, including the present writer. Our record has been for too long one of absorption in technique for its own sake, or alternatively of accepting sociological intentions at their face value” (584-585).

  6. See, for example, the career assessment in rororo Film lexikon, ed. Liz-Anne Bawden and Wolfram Tichy (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1978), 1246. Alexandre Arnoux, “Un déjeuner avec Pabst,” Pour Vous, 29 January 1931 (quoted in Amengual, Pabst, 17), traces, in the director's own words, this instability to the trauma experienced in World War I. “We belong,” Pabst explains, “to a sacrificed generation, cut in two. Our rhythm of life was broken; our generation carries within itself a rupture, an abyss between its youth and maturity. This explains the uncertainty and gasping of our works, their broken line, the difficulty we experience in finding a style.”

  7. Harry Alan Potamkin, “Pabst and the Social Film,” in The Compound Cinema, ed. Lewis Jacobs (New York and London: Teachers College, 1977), 416. The article originally appeared in Hound and Horn, January-March 1933.

  8. Ulrich Gregor and Enno Patalas, Geschichte des Films. 1: 1895-1939, 2 vols. (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1976), 61: Pabst is superficial, someone who glosses over surfaces and fails to penetrate them, taking recourse to the most obvious forms of melodrama and kitsch even in his Weimar films.

  9. In his contribution, David Bathrick discusses this very dilemma in terms of Pabst's The Love of Jeanne Ney. The films of the early thirties in particular provoked this criticism on the Right.

  10. See Cornelius Schnauber, Fritz Lang in Hollywood (Vienna, Munich and Zürich: Europaverlag, 1986), 147. Fritz Lang allegedly complained in a letter of 12 October 1966 to Lotte Eisner that Pabst, during his American sojourn, had spread rumors that Lang was in fact a secret agent for the National Socialists. Schnauber implicitly claims that Pabst (who returned to Vienna in 1939 and made “party line films”) was a more likely suspect.

  11. In this light it makes sense that the nomadic German director of Wim Wenders's The State of Things (Der Stand der Dinge, 1982), a filmmaker whose quest for images shipwrecks on Hollywood's narrative bulwarks, is seen as sharing the fate of Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. The film makes no mention of Pabst. Compare as well Lotte Eisner's treatment of Lang and Murnau (about whom she wrote exhaustive books) to her more problematical relationship to Pabst.

  12. See Willi Forst's characterization of Krauss's talents of transformation in Robert Dachs, Willi Forst. Eine Biographie (Vienna: Kremayr & Scherlau, 1986), 81. Krauss, likewise, is reputed to have had a famous fear of close-ups. William Shawn, in his introduction to Louise Brooks's Lulu in Hollywood (New York: Knopf, 1983), ix, talks about how the actress's person became one with her screen image: “It is difficult to believe that Louise Brooks exists apart from her creation. Pabst himself identified the two, and even Louise Brooks has had her moments of confusion.”

  13. See Karel Reisz and Gavin Millar, The Technique of Film Editing (New York: Hastings House, 1968), 48: “Pabst may have been one of the first film-makers to time most of his cuts on specific movements within the picture in an attempt to make the transitions as unnoticeable as possible.”

  14. Rotha and Griffith, 263. See as well Potamkin's utopian document, “A Proposal for a School of the Motion Picture,” reprinted in The Compound Cinema, 587-592. Among the faculty to be responsible for “Theory of Direction” were Pabst, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Milestone, Flaherty, Howard, Clair, and Asquith. The proposal first appeared in Hound and Horn, October 1933.

  15. Using organic metaphors, Langlois maintains that Pabst's fate bears out how a national hero languishes when uprooted from his native soil. The statement appears in the unpaginated brochure, Der Regisseur G. W. Pabst (Munich: Photo- und Filmmuseum, 1963).

  16. Compare Amengual, 12: “In nine years, from 1923 to 1932, Pabst made fifteen films. His best work, or rather, all of his work is there.” Even more explicit is Warren French's “Editor's Foreword” to Lee Atwell, G. W. Pabst (Boston: Twayne, 1977), 7: “One cannot suppress the distressing thought that if Pabst had died, like Murnau, during his American visit in the 1930s, he would probably have a far more glorious reputation today.”

  17. Rotha and Griffith, 582: Pabst presents “the most extraordinary and baffling case of the ‘accommodators,’” i.e. filmmakers who fell in with the National Socialists.

  18. See Georges Sadoul's characterization of Pabst in Histoire de l'art du Cinéma des origines à nos jours, 4th ed. (Paris: Flammarion, 1955).

  19. Cozarinsky in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, 1: 752.

  20. David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: Morrow, 1981), 455.

  21. André Bazin, “La politique des auteurs,” as rendered in Theories of Authorship, ed. John Caughie (London, Boston and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 45.

  22. For particulars on the present availability of Pabst films in the United States, see Feature Films: A Directory of Feature Films on 16mm and Videotape Available for Rental, Sale, and Lease, ed. James L. Limbacher, 8th ed. (New York and London: Bowker, 1985).

  23. Atwell, G. W. Pabst, 21.

  24. Pabst seems aware of the distinctly gender-bound logic of the street. Loitering, wandering, and idle gazing when practiced by a male have an altogether different significance than when exercised by a woman. Pabst does not replicate the “street film” rhetoric of the metropolis as a phantasmagoria which we find, for instance, in Karl Grune's The Street (Die Strasse, 1923). Cf. Klaus Kreimeier, “Die Strasse im deutschen Film vor 1933,” epd Kirche und Film (December 1972): 10-16.

  25. Compare the essay of 1922, “Die Wartenden,” reprinted in Siegfried Kracauer, Das Ornament der Masse, ed. Karsten Witte (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977), 106-119.

  26. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), 170.

  27. Patrice Petro, Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

  28. This motif—one that recurs throughout Weimar productions, as Petro points out—is not considered in Kracauer's study, which he describes as “a history of motifs pervading films of all levels” (8).

  29. See Kracauer's significant and regrettably still untranslated reportage, Die Angestellten. Aus dem neuesten Deutschland. The study first ran in 1929 and 1930 as a continuing serial in the Frankfurter Zeitung; the initial book edition appeared in 1930 (Frankfurt am Main: Frankfurter Societäts-Druckerei, Abteilung Buchverlag).

  30. Compare Nick Browne and Bruce McPherson, “Dream and Photography in a Psychoanalytic Film: Secrets of a Soul,Dreamworks 1:1 (Spring 1980): 36-37: One of the problems posed here, claim the authors, has to do with the “disjunction in the film between the precise and voluminous psychological detail and the paucity, even disingenuousness, of its psychoanalytic explanation,” something that “calls for a more thoroughgoing analysis of the case than either the film or its commentators provide.”

  31. Compare the more conventional interpretation of the epilogue as an entity, according to Kracauer (172), “which drags the whole plot into the sphere of melodrama, thus definitely nullifying its broader implications.”

  32. This quotation is taken from Ehrenburg's flier, Protest gegen die Ufa (Stuttgart: Rhein, 1928).

  33. See Lotte H. Eisner's incisive commentary in The Haunted Screen, trans. Roger Greaves (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), 296: “In Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl we have the miracle of Louise Brooks. Her gifts of profound intuition may seem purely passive to an inexperienced audience, yet she succeeded in stimulating an otherwise unequal director's talent to the extreme. Pabst's remarkable evolution must thus be seen as an encounter with an actress who needed no directing, but could move across the screen causing the work of art to be born by her mere presence.”

  34. Thomas Elsaesser, “Lulu and the Meter Man,” Screen 24.4-5 (July-October 1983): 33.

  35. Ibid., 36: “What Pabst could not prevent, in any case, was the momentous shift, whereby the film industry, seizing on the woman's body, and focusing gratification so much on the voyeuristic look, turned the cinema into an obsessional, fetishistic instrument, and thus betrayed in some sense its Modernist promise, by making this modernism instrumental and subservient to the logic of capital and the commodity.”

  36. For an inventory of such celebrations, see Doane's essay. Compare Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema (New York: Dutton, 1968), 151: The author remembers Pabst's work not because of its directorial presence, “but rather for the retroactive glory of Louise Brooks. … The preeminence of Miss Brooks as the beauty of the twenties indicates the classic nature of the cinema, and its built-in machinery for an appeal to the verdict of history.”

  37. Compare Eisner's appraisal, 316: “In his adaptation for the cinema Pabst diluted the original [Threepenny Opera] by his attachment to chiaroscuro and Stimmung.” For a more favorable evaluation of the film's social dimension, see Potamkin, “Pabst and the Social Film,” 415f.

  38. See Brecht's notes to The Threepenny Opera, “The Literarization of the Theatre,” in Brecht on Theatre, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 43: “The Threepenny Opera is concerned with bourgeois conceptions not only as content, by representing them, but also through the manner in which it does.”

  39. In this reading, Pabst would seem to span the boundaries of film as mass culture and modernism. For an articulation of this dialectic in the wider context of Weimar cinema, see Petro, Joyless Streets, 4-9.

  40. Petro maintains that Kracauer posits a male subject as the object and spectator of Weimar films. Elsaesser, she goes on to say, circumvents “questions of sexual ambiguity and androgyny as they relate to the female spectator, in favor of a sliding or unstable identification, one that remains bound to a male spectator position” (17).

  41. Compare Freddy Buache's indictment of the two films in G. W. Pabst (Lyon: Serdoc, 1965), 50: In Westfront, “the author … due to weakness of character or lack of conscience, abandons restating the sociological moment in the historic totalization. Westfront depicts war as a runaway Evil, descended from an unforeseeable Destiny, without economic and political origins.” In essence, then, Pabst “deliberately ignores the motives and horrible mechanics.”

  42. Compare Amengual's comments on Westfront, 42: “Pabst, powerless to create the real in its blatancy here, tries to recover it in the fantastic by turning to expressionism. More than the war, he depicts the nightmare of war.”

  43. Rudolf Arnheim, Kritiken und Aufsätze zum Film, ed. Helmut H. Diederichs (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1979), 259-260. Arnheim's notice originally appeared in Die Weltbühne on 13 September 1932 as “Flucht in die Kulisse.” Kracauer, in From Caligari to Hitler, 242, calls the film “an outright retrogression from ‘social conclusiveness’ into pure escapism.”

  44. “Pabst and the Social Film,” 420.

  45. Atwell, 116-117. Compare Herman F. Weinberg, “The Case of Pabst,” in Saint Cinema: Writings on Film, 1929-1970, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: Ungar, 1980), 19: “Pabst floundered about the studios of France and Hollywood without being able to adjust himself to the terrible nightmare of this shocking reality, namely that the integrity of the artist was a myth so far as the world is concerned, that art is not universal, nor above the bickerings of politicians and dictators, that money rules all, and that this is pretty much the worst of all possible worlds. How else to explain the abortion made in Hollywood which carried his name as director?”

  46. Riefenstahl describes her work with Pabst (who assisted in some scenes of Tiefland) in her Memoiren (Munich and Hamburg: Knaus, 1987), 369: Pabst “was no longer the man I had known twelve years before when we had worked so well on Piz Palü. His personality had changed. … Nothing remained of what had once been such a good eye for visual matters. Hollywood apparently had no positive influence on him, his approach now was perfunctory and seemed more in keeping with what one might expect for commercial films.”

  47. Atwell, 116: “Pabst was bitterly disillusioned by the repressive system of Hollywood's assembly-line methods where he had virtually no creative control and was regarded primarily as a functionary rather than an artist.” Pabst reflected on how Hollywood had compromised his authorial endeavors in an essay of 1937, “Servitude et grandeur à Hollywood.”

  48. Compare Edgardo Cozarinsky, “Foreign Filmmakers in France,” in Rediscovering French Film, ed. Mary Lea Bandy (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1983), 140: “Though Jacques Ibert's score and Paul Morand's lyrics in Don Quichotte dilute into Parisian chic an approach obviously inspired by Brecht and Weill …, the ‘epic theater’ treatment of a selection of episodes from Cervantes suggests a possible reading of the classic that is as unexpected as it is engaging.” The epic treatment may well explain the disappointment experienced by critics like Otis Ferguson. See his review of 9 January 1935, reprinted in The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson, ed. Robert Wilson (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1971), 64: “As far as such central matters as the dominant idea and its execution are concerned, the picture is a pretty straight flop. A few attitudes, a few big tableaux, and no flowing of one small thing into another.”

  49. Review in The Spectator, 28 July 1939, reprinted in Graham Greene on Film. Collected Film Criticism 1935-1940, ed. John Russell Taylor (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 235.

  50. Agee's notice appeared on 3 February 1945 in The Nation. It is reprinted in Agee on Film, 2 vols. (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1969), 1: 140.

  51. For a lengthy account, see the materials gathered in Atwell, 121-123, including a recollection by Pabst's widow. See as well Boguslaw Drewniak, Der deutsche Film 1938-1945. Ein Gesamtüberblick (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1987), 66. Drewniak speaks of Pabst as Nazi Germany's most prominent re-emigrant: “After Pabst's return, the public was astonished. Every reader of the Philo Lexikon (Berlin, 1935) knew that the director Pabst was of pure Jewish descent.”

  52. Michael Pabst related this fact in a recent conversation with Hans-Michael Bock.

  53. For more particulars, see Hans-Michael Bock's essay in this volume. For a rather lame attempt to vindicate Pabst's wartime work, see Leo Lania, “In Defense of Pabst,” letter in The New York Times, 2 April 1950.

  54. Atwell, 126. The author's account of the film, here as elsewhere, abounds with infelicities and errors. Renata, Pfefferkorn's daughter, is referred to as “the merchant's wife.” Fritz Rasp, the Magister, is called the “Schoolmaster” and characterized as “subdued” (!). The famous publisher Froben becomes “an invalid who is suffering from a leg injury.” Atwell goes on to confuse two central scenes, namely the visit of the ailing Ulrich von Hutten to Paracelsus and the fatal treatment of Froben by Paracelsus's assistant. In Atwell, we read: “When Ulrich von Hutten, a prominent citizen [!], is seized by the illness [presumably the plague, but in fact, syphilis, as the film makes clear], Paracelsus administers a potion that momentarily effects a miraculous cure, but when the man dies, Paracelsus is roughly expelled” (127).

  55. David Stewart Hull, Film in the Third Reich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 246.

  56. Atwell, 135.

  57. See Eisner, 329. She describes the persistence of the “mawkish perfection of the ‘Ufa style’” above all in the “pseudo-historical film.” “It introduces a false note into all the costume film productions made during the Third Reich, from Jud Süss (1940) and Rembrandt (1942) to Pabst's Paracelsus (1943) and Riefenstahl's Tiefland (1944).” This style “is still there to mar Pabst's post-Nazi film Prozess.

  58. Buache, 94.

  59. Amengual, 40. The phrase is meant to describe Diary of a Lost Girl; Amengual likens it to Luis Buñuel's Mexican films.

  60. These celebrations are ubiquitous in Pabst's work. According to Amengual, they both exalt and condemn eros (35). For an eloquent and expressive account of this motif and its larger significance in the Pabstian corpus, see Amengual, 78ff., esp. 81: “Celebrations, theatrical representations, dreams—few of Pabst's films ignore them. From the spectacle of Frau Greifer among her angels in Joyless Street, from the troupe's travels in Komödianten, to the cancan in Mistress of Atlantis and the café concerts in Mademoiselle Docteur, from the Shanghai Drama, from Peachum's revolutionary ‘masquerade’ to Michel Simon's pseudo-suicide in High and Low, not to mention the ‘opera’ diffused by images in The Threepenny Opera, love and life reveal themselves to be a universal conspiracy in which each brings its stone without being aware of it, a gigantic machine for conditioning reflexes.”

Russell A. Berman (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Berman, Russell. “A Solidarity of Repression: Pabst and the Proletariat.” In Cultural Studies of Modern Germany: History, Representation, and Nationhood, pp. 123-33. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Berman contends that Pabst's allegedly left-wing film Kameradschaft is actually ambivalent on the issue of proletarian liberties.]

The lesson of Nolde's vicissitudes in Nazi Germany involves the limits of intentionality: the painter's desire to identify with the fascist state was unable to influence the state's rejection of the painter. A similar disjunction operates in the case of Pabst's Kameradschaft (1931), one of the most explicitly political films of the late Weimar Republic. For the ostensibly leftist celebration of proletarian solidarity betrays, under scrutiny, a much more ambivalent agenda. True, the final sequence of the film seems to demonstrate unambiguously the establishment of the solidarity promised by the title. The last of the German mine workers, who volunteered to rescue their French comrades trapped in an underground disaster, return to the border after the successful conclusion of the operation. The thronging mass that greets them is in a festive mood, explained by a French worker who leaps onto a platform and, framed by the French and German flags, delivers a rousing speech proclaiming proletarian unity, pacifism, and internationalism. With appropriate symmetry, the German worker who initiated the rescue movement, Wittkopp (Ernst Busch), responds with a parallel address in German: workers are the same everywhere—“Kumpel ist Kumpel”—and will refuse to be pushed into war; even if “the people on top” are caught in disputes, the miners have learned the importance of solidarity and Kameradschaft.

Yet despite the uplifting assertions of an international working-class community of interest, what appears to be unambiguously conclusive at the end of the film is in fact open to some considerable doubt. An epilogue (which is missing in the versions generally available in the United States) shows German and French guards in the mine shaft reconstructing the border barrier that had been broken through during the rescue efforts. Several explanations for the omission of this sequence have been offered, ranging from the “derisive howls and hisses from audiences” when it was first screened in Berlin, to objections from German censors. According to Siegfried Kracauer, Pabst intended the coda as a critique of nationalism, but it was misunderstood as an attack on the Treaty of Versailles (as the document which established the postwar boundaries) and therefore very much part of the nationalist agenda.1

Whatever the significance of this sequence and its excision, the ideals announced in the double speeches are in fact undermined by more than the epilogue's fiction of a reerected fence. As the epigraph proudly asserts, Kameradschaft is “founded on fact,” in particular on the factual past of the mine disaster at Courrières in 1906, when German workers did indeed rush to the aid of the trapped French miners. While maintaining a camera style designed to evoke the realist authenticity of a documentary, Pabst shifts the event to the postwar era and to Lorraine—the border runs right through the mine—in order better to stage the issue of national divisions and working-class internationalism. The film is consequently able to produce the message of the final speeches and their optimistic ring. Yet that message rings hollow, as soon as the source of the ostensibly documentary material is taken into account: if the solidarity of 1906 could not prevent 1914, why should the viewer in 1931 trust an unreflected repetition of that solidarity to prevent a new war?2 Therefore the ambiguity of Kameradschaft is by no means dependent on a subversive epilogue, missing or not, but is rather a consequence of the historical construction of the foregrounded message of solidarity. The concluding ideals turn out to have little plausibility on their own merit, which is to say that Kameradschaft has less value as a vehicle of internationalism than as evidence with which to study the failure of internationalisms and the weakness of working-class solidarity on the eve of National Socialism.

In fact, the very manner with which the film attempts to assert its message of solidarity turns out to demonstrate its instability. The lengthy encounter in the mines, so profoundly intense, intimate, and, as will be discussed in a moment, full of sexual and mythic undertones, is seemingly summed up in two sloganeering speeches, as if the public language of political leaders were adequate to articulate a collective identity or a socialist hegemony.3 The concluding sequence enacts, one might say, a linguistic turn in the much richer analysis carried out by the text, privileging the speech of the cadre over both the preceding material experience, the substance of the extended narrative, and the concrete multiplicity of the assembled workers. Yet speech, to which the film ascribes the power to assert the identity of comradeship, turns out to be inadequate, as Wittkopp is forced to announce at the commencement of his address: “What the French comrade said, I could not understand; what he meant, we could all understand.” Thus even in the context of this political speech, which announces the self-evident socialist message of the film, speech itself is presented as insufficient and relegated to a secondary status vis-à-vis a more effective mode of expression—meinen rather than sagen—and the construction of the collective is thereby shifted from rational communication into an irrational domain of opinion and a nonverbal semiosis.

This contradiction—Wittkopp's speech insisting on the limits of speech—obviously undermines the plausibility of the solidarity which is the central message of his own speech, i.e., Pabst's proletarian community is stillborn. To the extent that this failure has to do with the structure of language and, in particular, the hierarchical relationship between cadre and collective, the final sequence of Kameradschaft could well be contrasted with another document of Franco-German peacemaking, the Strassburg Oath of 842; in the latter case, both the Carolingian leaders and their military followers participate in speech, producing presumably a more complex network of loyalties and collective identities. In contrast, the modern film silences the collectives and permits only the leaders to speak. By presenting two separate speeches, one in French and one in German, it effectively reproduces the national division that the speakers themselves want to deny.

However, the ambiguity of politics in Kameradschaft and the failure of Pabst's ideals are not solely a result of this distorted communicative structure at the end of the film. From its very outset, the film presents a critique of nationalism that never thoroughly measures up to the values of pacifism and socialism that are so urgently underscored. Kameradschaft begins with a game between two boys, one German and one French; the opening shot shows a marble rolling across the ground. Through a montage of editing, the boys, who quickly begin to quarrel, are set in relation to tensions between France and Germany along the border in the context of the growing German unemployment. The point of the gaming commencement is, however, not simply that adults are behaving like children but, more important, the suggestion that the wrong game is being played since the aleatory moment of free play, the rolling marble, has been displaced by an inappropriate game of agonistic embattlement.

The gaming that follows in the film is exclusively agonistic: the muted class struggle between workers and management; the heroic struggle with nature; and, especially, the reminiscence of the wartime struggle in the single flash-back of the movie. Even aspects of the celebrated solidarity are tied closely to images of combat: the procession of the German rescuers leaving their town recalls soldiers leaving for war, they have to smash through the border and survive a volley of shots, and when they arrive at the gates of the French mine they are initially mistaken for troops. The images of comity depend ultimately on an iconography of enmity, since the body of the film presents no alternative to a confrontational agonistics, i.e., the struggle with the national enemy—which is ostensibly rejected—is preserved in the militarization of the vocabulary of solidarity and is displaced into another terrain of struggle: interestingly, less the struggle with another class than the struggle to master a threatening nature.

None of these permutations returns to the utopian moment of aleatory play with which the film opened, the rolling marble; nothing has retracted the fall into agonistics, and the film's initial problem, the need to return to a nonrepressive homo ludens, is never solved.4 Clearly the solidarity envisioned by the film is not a solution, since it is very much implicated in processes of struggle and mastery, despite the rosy rhetoric of the concluding speeches. Given this discrepancy between the end of the cinematic text with its message of socialist harmony and the opening assertion of an ontology of struggle and repression, it is crucial to pay close attention to the nature of the social bonds represented in the course of the film and not only to the terms of the social contract announced at its conclusion. Is the comradeship of Kameradschaft a matter less of a pacifist internationalism than a comradeship-in-arms of men conquering nature? What are the grounds for the collective identity of the workers? If it is true that the proletariat has no fatherland and, as Wittkopp puts it, all the workers are the same—“Kumpel ist Kumpel”—then one has to ask what force holds the community of comrades together.

A likely answer is some considerable homosocial attraction: the decision to launch the rescue expedition is made as part of a spectacular shower room sequence replete with glistening nude male bodies, and a fight with a delirious French miner (who has succumbed to the haunting memories of the war) concludes when the victorious German affectionately strokes the cheek of his now unconscious and prostrate opponent. Yet more important than these examples of an ostensible male eroticism, extensive evidence points to the exclusion of women as a crucial aspect of the construction of the male collective.5

The point is not that there are no women working in the mines (that, presumably, is a moment of verisimilitude in the film) but that both the German and French miners, all men, are constructed as groups from whom women have been emphatically separated. Phrased another way, the separation which has been caused by women can be healed only when the women are separated away and the men come together in the dark, deep inside the earth. The origin of this problematic is the dance-hall scene which follows immediately on the initial exposition. Three German miners enter the music-filled Kursaal on the French side of the border. The film cuts to an attractive young couple, Emile and Françoise, dancing with obvious affection for each other. When one of the Germans asks her for a dance, she refuses, which is taken for a nationalist affront, and a melee is only narrowly avoided when the German withdraws from the woman.

This separation of a male collective from a female sphere is repeated on the French side as well. On their way home, the couple overhears an engineer commenting on the fire in the mine; Françoise insists that Emile give up his job, and when he refuses, she decides to leave. The following morning, we see Emile enter the mine, and Françoise departs on a train just as the disaster strikes. By now, however, a network of sexual imagery has become apparent: Emile chooses the fire in the phallic mine shaft over Françoise's female sexuality, just as the three Germans retreat from Françoise into the conviviality of an infantile eroticism (one of his companions pleads with the rejected suitor to “leave the women alone and come back to the rabbit,” a reference to the pet they have inexplicably brought with them: an indication of both childishness and genital renunciation, since the alternative to the woman is the genderless neuter of the Kaninchen). Furthermore Françoise's path back to the mining town is marked first by her abandonment of her suitcase—a sign perhaps of her renunciation of an independent life but certainly for Freud a standard symbol of female genitalia.6 This latter association is confirmed by the fact that Françoise proceeds back to the mine by taking a ride with a nun, an incontrovertible indication of the denial of female sexuality.

The underlying sexual economy turns out to be one in which male solidarity is produced in response to a threat by women (the encounter in the dance hall) and is preserved through the negation and subordination of women (Emile prefers the mine to Françoise). Precisely this logic is played out outside the gates of the mine. In the belief that the mine management has prematurely given up the search for the buried workers, the crowd, composed mainly of women and led by Françoise, tries to storm the gates. Françoise is in the front of the surging mass and is shot in a slightly elevated position, calling to those behind her, not unlike the famous iconography of the figure of the revolutionary Liberté. Yet just at this moment of radical confrontation, the German rescue company arrives with all its military demeanor. This unexpected turn of events quiets the crowd and bewilders Françoise, who can only mutter, “Les Allemands, c'est pas possible.”

Even the moment of rescue, therefore, is constructed through the ostentatious displacement of women: instead of the radical crowd led by the female allegory of liberty, the heroic role is reserved for the uniformed German volunteers, fresh from the showers. The price of the male bonding turns out to be a simultaneous displacement of a radical alternative—the impassioned crowd led by Françoise—by a more disciplined and hierarchical group. Excluded from the male discipline of the socialist organization, the anarchic energy of the unruly mass presumably could eventually be occupied by antisocialist, especially fascist movements that more effectively articulated values of spontaneity and a populist antipatriarchy.7 It follows then that the apparent shallowness of the ideals of Kameradschaft and the weakness of working-class solidarity had to do with the implicit misogyny in the symbolism and political practice of the working-class movement. To the extent that the collective of proletarian solidarity was de facto a matter of male bonding, it could not be a radical one. On the contrary, this reading of the film should show how, despite the rhetoric of socialist revolution, such male bonding was implicated in an establishmentarian defense of the status quo from a putative female threat—the threat at the borders, the imminence of separation and castration—and the need to sublate the wound in the healing collective of a male whole.

These sexual politics of the community are explored in the overriding iconographic concern: the construction of identity through the establishment of division and the anxiety over an impending disruption of the border. At the outset, the borders are of course treated as evidence of unnecessary enmity and belligerence: the border drawn between the two children or blocking the passage of the unemployed workers. These images are obviously fully compatible with the message of internationalism illustrated by the German miners' breaking through the underground wall marking the 1919 border. Yet the miners are not the only force to break through walls: the catastrophe first appears as the eruption of a flaming explosion tearing through the brick containment wall and setting off the collapse of the sides of a mine shaft. Masses of stones, flooding water, and impenetrable smoke pour into various frames, obscuring the images of the figures and threatening their lives. So despite the different evaluations of a positive socialist internationalism and a murderously brute force of nature, both appear on the screen as the activity of masses challenging borders. Kameradschaft's judgment of the mass is therefore intriguingly ambivalent. Proletarian solidarity is applauded as an alternative to the divisiveness of national borders, but the homologous power of the elements, breaking down the divisions erected by technology, is portrayed as the ultimate danger.

The radical crowd storming the gates of the mine can arguably be associated with a position of class struggle: the enemy is the owner or, at least, the manager. The genuine lesson of the film, however, is a different one: workers of the world unite, not in a struggle with the bourgeoisie but in a struggle to control nature. The ambivalent portrayals of the sublime mass—never-ending solidarity and the infinite elements—are resolved to the extent that the film sets the two against each other: proletarian solidarity of the masses overcoming the threat of the masses of the elements. The pacifist theme provides an excuse to redirect an initial aggression pointed at a foreign enemy (across the national border) toward nature in the form of technological mastery.

Yet this redirection of aggression is also an introversion; the mass (of workers) is turned against the mass (of nature), and one is forced to ask to what extent it is in effect turned against itself. Is the conquest of nature, which the film portrays as a struggle with external nature, in fact a displacement of a repression of an internal nature? Kameradschaft explores the viability of mechanisms to control the masses, who appear in their full spontaneity at the moment of catastrophe. As the train carrying Françoise pulls out of the station, the alarm whistle sounds at the mine, and suddenly, in a series of shots, the otherwise placid pedestrians of the city break into a frantic run. This sudden transformation is the genuine crisis of the film: the crowd is born, perhaps the only convincing echo of the aleatory chaos of the game of marbles, and the film suggests several competing analyses of this origin—the moment of terror that disrupts the petit bourgeois routine of everyday life as well as the undeniable concern and compassion for the endangered workers.

However, one shot in particular is crucial, showing the panicked crowd rushing off but reflected in a store window displaying a series of indistinguishable caps. If there is a radical moment in Kameradschaft, this is it, although it is not the moral intended by Pabst. The shot sets up a relationship between, on the one hand, a commodified culture—the exhibition of wares—whose ultimate product, however, is the spectacle, the reflection in the window, and, on the other, the emergence of the crowd. Yet this crowd of consumers, flaneurs, and dislocated individuals has the propensity to explode in the spontaneous combustion of a Luxemburgian anarchy, culminating in the riot at the mine gate.8 This radical threat to the society of commodities is averted by the discipline of a male socialism that arrives in the nick of time to save the capitalist organization. Proletarian solidarity appears to be a version of crowd control. The mass is turned against the mass, and this self-negation unfolds in two different ways: the sequences within the mine, representing an effort to master nature, are both a metaphor for the repression of the masses outside the gates and a displacement of the control of an internal nature necessary for the establishment of the promised comradeship.

While the displacement of the radical crowd is an important indication of the political underbelly of socialist solidarity, the film ultimately places greater emphasis on the second trajectory of self-negation, the instinctual archeology of the male bond. The workers conquer nature and thereby conquer themselves. This dialectic of technological progress is staged in a primitive setting, with man pitted against elementary forces of fire and water gushing through elongated shafts. Kameradschaft therefore seems to display some remarkable similarity with Freud's reading of the myth of Prometheus. Both explore the libidinal economy of technology, and both pose the problem in terms of male collectives mastering fire (both, by the way, are works of 1931). Most important, however, is the shared recognition of a homoerotic or homosocial foundation for the technological community of men.

Freud begins his comments on the myth with a consideration of the hollow stick in which Prometheus transports the fire; he interprets it as a penis symbol with reference to the oneiric rhetoric of inversion: “What a man harbours in his penis-tube is not fire. On the contrary, it is the means of quenching fire; it is the water of his stream of urine.” By associating fire furthermore with the heat of erotic desire, Freud can suggest “that to primal man the attempt to quench fire with his own water had the meaning of a pleasurable struggle with another phallus.”9 The elementary ambivalence of fire and water is clearly present in the iconography of the catastrophe in Kameradschaft: both push through the shaft, presumably a threatening resurgence of libidinal energy which it is the labor of the film to master in the interest of civilization and technological progress.

As for Freud, the film too suggests that this progress requires a reorganization of homoeroticism, i.e., a renunciation of the pleasurable play with another phallus and the consequent establishment of a homosocial community: the handclasp of the German and French rescuers in the darkness of the mine. Simultaneously this male community of self-repression can itself function as a mechanism of repression vis-à-vis the threat of the female crowd. Yet in Freud's reading the myth also preserves a knowledge of the costs of progress and the suffering caused by repression: Prometheus' deed is a crime for which he is punished, that is, the crime against nature inherent in any denial of libido. On this point, the film diverges markedly: the conquest of nature, internal and external, is presented as unambiguously positive, and suffering is relegated to a past characterized as lacking adequate control. This refusal to identify and critique the experience of repression means that, for all its progressive self-presentation, Kameradschaft boils down to a lesson in discipline and self-control. This conservative apology for civilizational repression belies the socialist aspirations of the film's conclusion and is an important symptom of the sort of weakness that prevented the working-class movement from mounting a plausible response to the challenge of an antirationalist fascism.

The negativity that adheres to the Promethean myth, which insists on the criminal and even blasphemous character of progress, is preserved in classical psychoanalysis as the notion of a necessary discontent in civilization. Historical development has been paid for with an enormously painful repression and instinctual denial: in particular, Freud discusses the sublimation of homoeroticism in the taming of fire as the initiation of technology.10 That same process of libidinal repression is staged in Kameradschaft which, however, refuses to treat repression as an object of criticism. Instead repression, denial, discipline, and technological progress are celebrated and presented as unambiguously positive. One consequence of this affirmative stance is the extraordinarily timid character of the political message, a strangely meek socialism without class struggle, as if the excessive repression of nature robbed the movement of any real spunk.

A second consequence is the importance of technology, which overshadows any vestigial romanticism of the worker as producer, and the crucial technology for Kameradschaft is ultimately the film itself. The anxiety about borders which the film thematizes is no doubt a consequence of the relatively new use of the moving camera, which was so central to Pabst's exploration of a realist cinema. Despite the considerable editing and montage in the film, innovative camera movement contributed to a redefinition of the frame of the shot, and, as Noel Carroll has commented, “The feeling engendered is that the cameraman is pursuing an unstaged action, shifting his point of view as the event develops. … Throughout the film, camera movement has the look of following the action rather than delimiting it.”11 This spontaneity and movement, however, like the obliteration of the borders within the film, set off a crisis: the organization of space has gone out of control, and in both cases, the formal construction of the film and the content of its narrative, the answer to the crisis is technological progress, in particular the technology of the sound film.

Sound, and not proletarian solidarity, is arguably the real hero of Kameradschaft. The sound of the factory whistle calls the workers, and the alarm siren announces the disaster. Pabst uses sound to indicate explosions taking place elsewhere than in a particular shot, and Françoise and Emile can overhear, without seeing, a conversation regarding the underground fire. More important, certainly, is the role of sound in the rescue operation, when a stranded French miner attracts the attention of a German volunteer by banging on a metal pipe with his wrench. Finally the intended message of the film is presented in the concluding oratorical performances of the double speeches.

The central role of sound—in 1931 still very much a new technology—is in fact announced in the film itself in a way that indicates its complicity in the network of sexual politics and repression. Renouncing her plans for independence, Françoise rushes back to the site of the mine disaster by hitching a ride with a nun; the imagery of sexual denial has already been mentioned. When asked if she has a relative in the mine, Françoise replies, “my brother,” then pauses, and adds, “son ami,” his friend, i.e., not her own friend or lover, but her brother's colleague. This reply is compatible with the analysis of the construction of the homoerotic collective. Yet the pause in the middle of the phrase draws attention to another ambiguity: the ambiguity not of the relationship but of the phoneme itself, which can be taken either as a possessive adjective or as an independent noun, in which case “son, ami” turns into “sound, friend.” In this version, then, Françoise's cryptic answer identifies the mine less as the locus of male solidarity than as the site of an innovation having to do with the technological reproduction of acoustic phenomena.

This account might well appear plausible if one keeps in mind the uses of sound already enumerated. It turns out to be irresistible if one reexamines the final rescue episode, which can be treated as the climax of the film. The three Germans from the dance-hall sequence did not join the rescue crew, but instead set off on their own to dig their way through from the German side of the mine to the French side, where they eventually end up trapped together with two French men, a young miner and his grandfather. Finding their escape route blocked, they give up all hope, and one of the Germans comments, “Well, we'll take the electric tram to heaven,” at which point a telephone rings; earlier shots have indicated that a telephone operator in the mine office has been trying to determine if and where anyone was still caught below, i.e., the five remaining victims have literally been saved by the bell or, in other words, by friend sound, the electric tram to heaven.

Friend sound, “son, ami,” is electrically reproduced sound, itself the technological innovation of Kameradschaft as well as the result of the technological progress which Kameradschaft records: the control of fire. Although the film refuses to explore the dialectic inherent in the mastery of nature, it does in fact draw attention to alternative appropriations of technology. The telephone, which is the actual agent of rescue, has already made a number of appearances in the film: forced to allow his employees to set off on their rescue expedition, the manager of the German mine rings up his French opposite number and suggests that he deserves credit for what was in fact an act of spontaneous solidarity; and when the German workers crash across the French border, the border guards call ahead. That is, in the two earlier cases, the telephone, as a cipher of the new technology of acoustic reproduction, is deeply involved in the structures of control and domination, while in the final sequence it works as a tool of emancipation.

This investigation of the technologically most advanced means of communication is located within a historical theory of the media. Like many texts of the Weimar period, Kameradschaft suggests that a culture of verbal literacy—individual reading in a bourgeois private sphere—belongs to an increasingly distant past. The metaphor for such anachronistic reading, indeed the only text genuinely “read” in the course of the film, is a poster on the wall outside of the dance hall; in addition, a thermometer embedded in a containment wall is read just before the explosion occurs. The location of reading on exterior walls is indicative of the dissolution of traditional bourgeois notions of privacy (a development underscored by the single shot of a domestic interior in the center of which one sees the gaping speaker of a victrola for the reproduction of sound). The insistence on the writing on the wall is moreover evidence of the proximity of an impending catastrophe, since Kameradschaft is so much about the tumbling down of walls and, therefore, the obsolescence of an older media culture.

The catastrophe is the explosion of the masses: the masses of commodities in the shop window, the masses of the crowd, and the masses of a threatening nature. Kameradschaft describes an inadequate response by tracing the journey of the grandfather who sneaks into the mine and searches on his own for his beloved grandson. With little equipment, he signifies a technologically backward mode of operation; with his tiny lamp in the cavernous darkness, all he can do is light up the imagery, take shots, so to speak, but his abilities, a metaphor for the silent film, prove insufficient for the task at hand. Only with the successful and collective repression of nature, the conquest of fire, and its metamorphosis into the electricity of the telephone can the project of retrieval be completed.

The success of that project and the recognition of the potentially progressive use of technology do not fully obscure the simultaneous regressive potential, i.e., the manipulative use of the new technology. Nevertheless Kameradschaft, with its unbroken historical optimism, indisputably emphasizes the positive developments, just as it fully conceals the pain and suffering of the via dolorosa of progress. As an analysis of a profound restructuring of the organization of the media, it therefore too naively insists on the beneficial role of the electric reproduction of sound. The telephone as a tram to heaven does not only anticipate the role of sound in subsequent cinematic realism, including Pabst's own; it also prefigures the use of sound in propaganda and the function of the radio in National Socialist Germany. Kameradschaft, like much of the contemporary workers' movement, fails to understand that a solidarity based on repression cannot be progressive and that technology as a blind domination of nature is bound to prevent solidarity.


  1. “A Mine Disaster,” New York Times, November 9, 1932; Lee Atwell, G. Pabst (Boston: Twayne, 1977), 101; Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971) 240.

  2. “As the film stands now, to accept the accord which effected the rescue as permanent in proletarian fraternity would be a delusive irony, especially when we recall that the actual event at Courrières did not prevent that war of 1914.” Harry Alan Potamkin, “Pabst and the Social Film,” in Horn and Hounds, January-March, 1933, 303. Cf. “Kameradschaft,” in Deutsche Filmzeitung, no. 51/52 (1931): 14-16, rpt. in Erobert den Film! (Berlin: Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst, 1977), 171.

  3. Cf. the discussion of politics and language in Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985).

  4. Cf. Nancy Webb-Kelly, Homo Ludens, Homo Aestheticus: The Transformation of “Free Play” in the Rise of Literary Criticism, Diss., Stanford University, 1988.

  5. Cf. Michael Rohrwasser, Saubere Mädel, Starke Genossen: Proletarische Massenliteratur? (Frankfurt: Roter Stern, 1977); Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

  6. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, Vol. 5 (London: Hogarth Press, 1953), 354.

  7. Cf. Alice Yaeger Kaplan, Reproductions of Banality: Fascism, Literature, and French Intellectual Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), and Peter Brückner et al., “Perspectives on the Fascist Public Sphere,” New German Critique, no. 11 (Spring 1977):94-132.

  8. Cf. Rosa Luxemburg, Selected Political Writings, ed. Dick Howard (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971).

  9. Sigmund Freud, “The Acquisition and Control of Fire,” Standard Edition, Vol. 22 (London: Hogarth Press, 1964), 188, 190.

  10. “It is as though primal man had the habit, when he came in contact with fire, of satisfying an infantile desire connected with it, by putting it out with a stream of his urine. The legends that we possess leave no doubt about the originally phallic view taken of tongues of flames as they shoot upwards. Putting out fire by micturating—a theme to which modern giants, Gulliver in Liliput and Rabelais' Gargantua, still hark back—was therefore a kind of sexual act with a male, an enjoyment of sexual potency in a homosexual competition. The first person to renounce this desire and spare the fire was able to carry it off with him and subdue it to his own use. By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitation, he had tamed the natural force of fire. This great cultural conquest was thus the reward for his renunciation of instinct.” Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, Standard Edition, Vol. 21 (London: Hogarth Press, 1921), 90.

  11. Noel Carroll, “Lang, Pabst, and Sound,” Cine-Tracte 2, no. 1 (1978):22.

Ira Konigsberg (essay date fall 1995)

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SOURCE: Konigsberg, Ira. “Cinema, Psychoanalysis, and Hermeneutics: G. W. Pabst's Secrets of a Soul.Michigan Quarterly Review 34, no. 4 (fall 1995): 519-47.

[In the following essay, Konigsberg examines Secrets of the Soul in the context of films that feature psychoanalysts as either saviors or demons.]

In the 1948 film The Snake Pit, a psychiatrist (played by Leo Genn) has a long therapeutic session with a patient (played by Olivia de Havilland) in which he slowly opens up to her two earlier traumas that have resulted in her nervous breakdown and incarceration in a mental institution. A photograph of Sigmund Freud prominently appears on the wall behind them throughout much of the scene. The Snake Pit was Hollywood's fifth highest box-office success for the year and earned an impressive list of Academy Award nominations. Freud and psychoanalysis have on occasion been good box office and have also been treated with a certain amount of reverence in commercial cinema. We should remember that many Hollywood film-makers were under the influence of psychoanalysts at the time, an influence evident in the many films of the 1950s and 1960s that employ psychotherapists, and here I mean both analysts and nonanalysts, as an important and positive element in their plots. One looks back with nostalgia to a time when psychotherapists were not fools like Richard Dreyfuss in What About Bob (1991), lovesick fools like Dudley Moore in Lovesick (1983), corrupt lovesick fools like Richard Gere in Final Analysis (1991), or cannibals like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

Psychotherapists were certainly portrayed as comic or horrific figures in earlier films, but they were also treated with a good deal more respect than in recent years. The number of relatively high-profile films during the past decade with depraved, demented, dysfunctional, or simply incompetent therapists, however, seems to be making a statement—a statement, perhaps, about the way psychotherapy is currently perceived in the public mind. Psychotherapists are receiving their share of abuse in film along with other professional types like lawyers or doctors—there has always been a democratic undercurrent of disdain for authority figures in our popular culture (more so, I might add, than for our wealthy class) and the times are ripe for disdaining authority. But we are talking about the movies, a popular art form that establishes a historical context and a set of conventions in which professional types are caught: for example, Richard Gere's role as the duped psychotherapist is certainly a spinoff from William Hurt's performance as the incompetent lawyer in Body Heat (1981). Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs is the modern equivalent of the deranged scientist or doctor in the earlier horror film—only in this case we have moved from the attempts of the earlier figure to control the human body to an attempt to control the mind, from Dr. Frankenstein putting together the parts of dead bodies to Hannibal disassembling the layers of the human psyche. His cannibalism is a metaphor for his wish to devour the mind of the heroine—he is our culture's ultimate depiction of the “shrink.”

These contemporary portrayals of the “shrink” in cinema may also be a defensive reaction of our culture against the truth that our time is in considerable need of psychotherapy, that the psychotherapist potentially carries significant power. An important essay by Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Sorcerer and his Magic,” demonstrates apparent differences and interesting correspondences between the shamans of primitive cultures and the psychoanalyst in ours, especially in their role of causing a “conversion” in an individual and thus integrating his or her “contradictory elements” into more acceptable “systems of reference” (178). I would like to take this parallel in another direction and add to the shaman and psychoanalyst such figures from a variety of cultures as the psychotherapist in general, the witch doctor, the alchemist, the priest, the artist, and the scientist, and claim that they all perform a similar role in the popular minds of their respective cultures, acting as both an intermediary and a transitional object between this world and another, between everyday reality and some other type of reality, between the known and the unknown. The Exorcist (1973) combines the priest and psychiatrist in the figure of Father Karas. In such films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Dressed to Kill (1980), The Howling (1981), Manhunter (1986), and The Silence of the Lambs, the psychiatrist becomes a focal point for the fears and terrors we associate with unknown worlds, but, interestingly, none of these figures are analysts.

The 1926 silent film Secrets of a Soul1 is the first of a different group of films in which the psychoanalyst specifically becomes our savior from such fears and terrors. I am referring to a group of salvational films in which Freud hovers in the background—in one version of Secrets of a Soul a portrait of Freud appears on the screen after the opening titles that praise his contributions2—in which psychiatry and psychotherapy are considerably influenced by psychoanalysis, in which the unconscious and the methodology of psychoanalysis that discloses that unconscious are treated with reverence and fascination.3 I shall mention as examples four films in this category after the Pabst film: Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound in 1945, a film that in spite of all its outrages finds most of its suspense and twists of plot in the unconscious mind of its hero and that brings the surrealistic images of Salvador Dali to its dream sequence; Mine Own Executioner, a British film about a lay analyst that appeared in 1947 and that has been totally forgotten;4The Snake Pit in 1948; John Huston's well-intentioned if misguided Freud in 1962 that focuses on the great man's early life and theories. We might do better to concentrate on these films than the counter-transference films in which we have met the enemy, who also happens to be a psychotherapist, and he is us. Aggression and violence have generally been film's particular forte, satisfying the public's id as a type of socially acceptable pornography; and films about psychotherapy have been quick to tap into film's romance with violence, to exploit and explore the death instinct more than other aspects of the psyche in order to satisfy the audience's vicarious taste for thrills. Though some of the salvational films fall into this vast category, all of them present the analyst not as the perpetrator of violence but as our savior from self-destructive impulses.

The opening titles to Secrets of A Soul immediately identify the film as salvational in nature while also placing it in a historical context.

In everyone's life, there are desires and passions that remain unknown to our conscious minds. In dark hours of emotional conflict, such unconscious drives try to assert themselves. Such struggles engender mysterious illnesses, the explanation and healing of which are the professional province of psychoanalysis. The teachings of university professor Dr. Sigmund Freud signify an important development in the training of doctors schooled in psychoanalysis who treat such emotional illnesses.5

Freud's relation to Secrets of a Soul was cautious.6 Ernest Jones in his biography of Freud relates that Samuel Goldwyn, “the well-known film director [sic], approached Freud with an offer of $100,000 if he would cooperate in making a film depicting scenes from the famous love stories of history, beginning with Antony and Cleopatra.” Jones tells us that Freud was “amused” at Goldwyn's “ingenious way of exploiting the association between psychoanalysis and love,” but declined the offer. Jones goes on to describe how Hans Neumann approached Karl Abraham about consultation for a film to be made by Germany's famous UFA film company concerning “the mechanisms of psychoanalysis” (114). Abraham wrote Freud about the offer on 7 June 1925, stating that the film company wanted Freud's authorization and that Abraham himself was to make suggestions on behalf of Freud's colleagues. He also mentioned a “comprehensible and non-scientific pamphlet on psychoanalysis” that he was to write and that would be published in conjunction with the film. Abraham argued for the project on the basis that it would be better to have such a film supervised by those in the know than any of “the wild analysts in Berlin” and also mentioned the possibility of publishing the pamphlet through their psychoanalytic press, the Verlag, and thus helping its fortunes (382-83). Freud's reactions were not at all positive, and his comments on film and psychoanalysis have been quoted many times over: “My chief objection is still that I do not believe that satisfactory plastic representation of our abstractions is at all possible.” His following remark is also worth quoting: “We do not want to give our consent to anything insipid. Mr. Goldwyn was at any rate clever enough to stick to the aspect of our subject that can be plastically represented very well, that is to say, love.” Freud went on to say that since Abraham seemed “not disinclined to engage in the matter,” they should both wait and see if the script was good, and, if so, he would later give his authorization, though he preferred not to have his name associated with the project at all (384).

Hanns Sachs worked with Abraham as a consultant on the film and ultimately became the chief advisor when Abraham withdrew because of ill health. Both Abraham and Sachs are designated as “fellow workers” on the cover of the screenplay, with Colin Ross and Hans Neumann listed as writers.7 The title page reads, The Secrets of the Soul, A Psychoanalytical Film Project, followed by Part Two: The Secret of a Soul, A Psychoanalytical Chamberplay. It seems unlikely that part one refers to the pamphlet that was to be written, since that publication was to be an exegesis of the film itself. One can only wonder at this time about the overall scope of the project originally intended. At some point in late summer or early fall of 1925, G. W. Pabst became the director of the film—Pabst had recently directed Joyless Street, certainly the most famous of the German street films and a work that shows Pabst extending his expressionistic film technique into the realm of realistic social problems. Secrets of a Soul was his fourth film and demonstrates a logical solution to the tension in his earlier work between expressionism and naturalism by using the former technique for the dream and memory sequences and the latter for the events taking place in the conscious, everyday world. The husband in the film is played by Werner Krauss, who played the role of the psychiatrist Dr. Caligari in the first German expressionist film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—recall that in the interior story he is a mad doctor who controls the mind and actions of the somnambulist Cesare and in the frame story he appears to be the kind and healing figure who is about to bring Francis back to sanity, both roles indicative of the ambiguous psychiatrist in future film. There is some irony and perhaps some significance in the fact that the first major psychiatrist and first actual analysand in cinema were played by the same actor. The role of the analyst in Secrets of a Soul, Dr. Charles Orth, was played by Pavel Pavlov, an actor from the Moscow Art Theater who spoke only Russian and at first knew nothing about psychoanalysis.

Jones tells us that Freud later complained to Abraham that “the film company were announcing without his consent, that the film was being made and presented ‘with Freud's cooperation’” (114). Indeed, Time magazine in this country even stated that “every foot of the film … will be planned and scrutinized by Dr. Freud.” Abraham became upset at attempts by A. S. Storfer, director of the Verlag, and Siegfried Bernfeld to sell a script for another psychoanalytic film. But Sachs clearly became central in the making of Secrets of a Soul and wrote the short monograph on the film called Psychoanalysis: Riddle of the Unconscious,8 which was intended as an explanation of some basic psychoanalytic concepts and as an explication of the film. The film was screened at a psychoanalytic congress held in Berlin to celebrate Freud's seventieth birthday in 1926 and was well received after its opening in Europe and the United States.

Freud's prejudice against cinema is curious, especially since his theories and the film medium were born at virtually the same time and both offered entries into the human mind. At the end of The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud compares the psyche “to a compound microscope or photographic apparatus, or something of the kind [in which] … psychical locality will correspond to a point inside that apparatus at which one of the preliminary stages of an image comes into being” (V. 5, 536); yet in his “A Note Upon the Mystic Writing Pad” (1925),9 some twenty-five years later and published only a year before the appearance of Secrets of a Soul, when he again seems to be in earnest search for some kind of apparatus that will act as a metaphor for the operations of the mind, he rejects devices such as the “photographic camera” because they cannot receive new impressions while holding onto memory traces of earlier perceptions. The writing pad with its thin plastic layer on top of a wax base seems a much better representative of the mental process he wishes to suggest. It is interesting to speculate why Freud was so resistant to the film medium and its potential for dealing with the human mind, especially since this is the direction that some of the earliest theorizing on film was to take. Perhaps his distrust was due to the newness of the medium in general and its appeal to a wide public—there has always been a certain vulgarity associated with film because of its popularity, its tendency to simplify human nature, and its exploitative appeal to the audience's less civilized emotions. But, ironically, was not this dark, emotional world the very landscape of the human psyche that Freud himself explored, and was not this the reason for Goldwyn's offer to him? Freud might also have been resistant to film because he was still unaware of its imagistic potential, its capacity to use superimpositions, split screens, dissolves, models, matting shots and other special effects to create a mental time and space, as it was to do in Secrets of a Soul.

Ten years before the appearance of Secrets of a Soul, Hugo Münsterberg, a German psychologist teaching at Harvard, published The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, a significant attempt to show the correspondence of film to the human mind, at least in its conscious aspects:10 “We recognize that in every case the objective world of outer events had been shaped and molded until it became adjusted to the subjective movements of the mind. The mind develops memory ideas and imaginative ideas; in the moving picture they become reality” (58). As early as 1916, someone is noticing how the motion picture, with its use of close-ups, flashbacks and flashforwards, and movement in space “obeys the laws of the mind rather than those of the outer world” (41). At the same time as the production of Secrets of a Soul in Germany, a group of avant-garde filmmakers in France was beginning to use film as an expression of the unconscious. Although we can find various theoreticians in later years discussing film as a psychological art form, the most significant advance in this direction took place in the 1960s, especially with the writing of Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz in France. Baudry and Metz were influential in laying upon film theory the burden of Jacques Lacan and his concept of the mirror phase, but they are especially interesting in their use of Freud to explicate the viewer's response to the film medium. The relation between film and dream has often been suggested in film theory, but Baudry and Metz are the first writers to make the correspondence seem convincing. I have no time to go into the analogy but let me say that sitting in a darkened area, passive in an immobile state, with images appearing before their consciousness, viewers loosen their hold on reality and undergo a type of regressive experience that puts them in a state akin to that of dreaming and day-dreaming. The fact that the images themselves are signifiers without any reality, are a two-dimensional imprint of a world that does not exist in reality, reminds us of the images of our dreams that also have no actuality. The crucial mechanism here is the way, in a state of reverie, we project our fantasies into the images on the screen, the way in which our fantasies interact with those on the screen so that what we see seems to emanate from ourselves, just the way the dream images are a creation of our own psyches.

If viewing a film is akin to the dream experience, if the special power of film is to give presence to a fantasy world, a film such as Secrets of A Soul, which offers a dream as a central portion of its narrative, is creating for us the experience of viewing a dream within a dream. Just as the play within the play discloses some hidden truth about what takes place in the outer world of the literary text, so does the dream within the film, itself experienced as a dream, disclose a similar hidden truth about the world that surrounds it. Freud comments that “What is dreamt in a dream after waking from the ‘dream within the dream’ is what the dream-wish seeks to put in the place of an obliterated reality. It is safe to suppose, therefore, that what has been ‘dreamt’ in the dream is a representation of the reality, the true recollection, while the continuation of the dream, on the contrary, merely represents what the dreamer wishes” (338). Freud's point is that the inner dream discloses some reality, some truth that the outer dream hides. Secrets of a Soul, therefore, indicates that films about psychoanalysis, and psychoanalysis itself in its reading and use of dreams, function according to already-established practices and rules of narrative art and are influenced by the same basic strategies of interpretation.

Psychoanalysis in general functions according to methodologies similar to those we use when analyzing both a literary and film text, when we first understand the manifest content while searching for a latent meaning, but when we also put all of our information, manifest and latent, into some type of structure or developmental order.11 The Russian formalists have given us a set of terms that help us better understand the second part of this interpretive strategy, the “sujet” and the “fabula”—the first term referring to the text in the order that we find it, and the second referring to the text that we both discover and rearrange in our own mind so that we finally have a logically ordered sequence of events that tell the larger story.12 Interpreting texts according to their “sujet” and “fabula” is close to the analytical method where the material as it is given and then deciphered is put into some type of logical ordering, some kind of cause and effect relationship, some kind of sequence and development that also tells the larger story. I am discussing what in psychoanalytic terms is referred to as “construction” or, more accurately, “reconstruction,” concepts that I shall turn to in more detail later in this essay, after we look at Pabst's film and are ready to make some larger cultural generalizations. The most obvious type of narrative text that fits the “sujet/fabula” and “reconstruction” paradigms is the mystery, where the reader or viewer is impelled to discover some hidden events that will explain the present situation, some hidden cause and effect relationship between events, some logical and chronological order that transcends the material as presented. This may explain why psychotherapy is often presented in film in the context of a mystery. In such works there seem to be two mysteries—the mystery involving the external events and the mystery of one of the character's psyches, often some trauma or traumatic event that explains the outer mystery or contributes to its explanation.13 Indeed, what also takes place in a number of these films is the conflation of both aggressor and victim so that the mysteries we seek to answer are explained by such characters' self-victimizations—so that these characters are, indeed, their own executioners.14

Let me specify how most of the psychoanalytic salvational films fit into this general category. In the psychoanalytic films, where the focus is usually on a character's self-victimization, we seem to resolve a mystery about the character that only covers up another mystery; we seem to discover something that answers to the course of present events only to discover that there is another mystery to be answered, another level of psychic events that is a truer explanation of what has taken place—it is as if these films are never satisfied with what they at first explain, as if they are suggesting that the mystery of the mind goes deeper and deeper. In Mine Own Executioner, a man nearly strangles his wife and, with the help of his analyst, is able to remember a traumatic experience in which he killed a guard while escaping from a camp for prisoners of war. But while the patient feels grateful that he now understands the buried past that has led to his irrational behavior, the analyst feels that the patient is still dangerous because some earlier traumatic experience remains buried and unrecognized. This other trauma is only hinted at and never fully exposed before the tragic ending of the film. In The Snake Pit, the therapist, through the use of truth serum, encourages the patient to remember the car accident that caused the death of her male friend, but immediately we discover some interior, earlier experience, an event when as a young girl she wished for the death of her father just before he actually died.15 This backward direction of the sujet in order to propose the forward direction of a larger fabula is most obvious in Freud, a work that dramatizes Sigmund Freud's self-analysis and his parallel analysis of the composite character Cecily, showing him pushing further and further into the psyche, back in time, until his discovery of childhood sexuality which is the first step in the development of the oedipal complex that explains his, Cecily's, and our present mental states.

In a curious way, Secrets of A Soul satisfies the type of structure I am describing—the mystery behind the mystery, the explanation behind the explanation, the psychic trauma behind the psychic trauma. On the surface, the film's story is quite simple. A husband and wife live together congenially, but are unable to have children. A murder next door and the announced visit of the wife's cousin, a childhood friend of the couple, precipitate in the husband an emotional reaction and strange dream, at the end of which he repeatedly stabs his wife. The actual visit of the cousin and a childhood photograph exacerbate his condition to the point where he is unable to hold a knife because of his fear of stabbing his wife. He undergoes psychoanalysis, while living apart from his wife with his mother, and is finally cured when he and the analyst, with the help of the dream and photograph, trace his present emotional state back to an event in his childhood that caused him to become jealous of his wife's relationship with her cousin. The cousin goes off and the couple go on to parenthood and a happy life. But the explanation that the film puts forth for the husband's knife phobia, for his present irrational actions, cannot possibly be the full reason—the events from the past recounted in the film suggest earlier events that are a truer explanation for the patient's present behavior, though these earlier events are not articulated in the film itself.

The structure of the film indicates the kind of inward movement that I am referring to as a series of frames—of frames within frames. The titles that begin the film, the statement concerning Dr. Sigmund Freud and his teaching as well as Freud's photograph (everything that appears on the screen is part of the film's sujet and also part of its fiction) create for us a level of “reality” in which the film's narrative action is to be embedded. The portrait of Freud appears in the Rohauer print of the film, where it is immediately followed by a brief scene showing Dr. Orth writing, “Facts of the case of Martin Fellman, a chemist …,” a scene paralleled in the final shots of this version when we see him writing,

Case History #326
Martin Fellman
Illness: Knife Phobia(16)

The framing device of Dr. Orth writing his case history not only encloses the narrative actions in another frame, but also attempts to place them in a larger context of which they are only a part—case #326 means that there have been 325 other cases for this particular psychoanalyst. In this version of the film, then, the narration of the husband, his wife, and her cousin actually begins within two frames, the first, that of Freud and psychoanalysis; the second, that of Dr. Orth and his case histories. But the narrative itself is obviously the frame for the larger and more significant action and imagery of the husband's dream, which itself becomes a frame for the story of the childhood event that led to the dream—and, I wish to argue, this childhood event is only a frame for a deeper configuration and dynamics that we must figure out for ourselves.

The pamphlet that Hanns Sachs wrote as a guide to the film is of help to us now. In this pamphlet Sachs attempts to write a primer concerning psychoanalysis and an explication of the film in psychoanalytic terms. An opening explanation of parapraxis17 (a misaction like a slip of the tongue or misplacing an object that results from unconscious motives) leads to a discussion of the hero's breaking of the test tube in the film and then an extensive explication of the film, with citations of other examples of parapraxis. Sachs also provides explanations of phobia and compulsion to explain the behavior of the film's protagonist. The central portion of the explication is an analysis of the husband's dream. For the most part Sachs' explication of the film is no more satisfying than the analyst's explication within the film, but Sachs lets us in on the secret of Secrets of a Soul toward the end of his pamphlet when he tells us that “Erotic problems, which have been especially important for psychoanalysis, are touched upon at various points but could be clarified only to a certain degree” (29).

A good deal in the film is not clarified. I suppose we can say that even though the film is dealing with a talking cure, the images must speak for themselves, tell us more than the film's titles—logically this must be the case since this is a motion picture and a silent one at that, but more is suggested and hidden in the narrative than in even the most ambiguous and subtle of silent narrative films. The explanation that the husband's desire to kill his wife and the resulting knife phobia are the products of a jealousy that can be traced back to the childhood event in which his wife gave a doll to her cousin might cure the husband in the film, but it hardly satisfies the viewer. I will suggest briefly what I believe the film wants us to interpret for ourselves. When the husband shaves the back of his wife's neck, at the start of the narrative, and then cuts her as the result of a shout of “Murder” from a neighboring house, his act is clearly connected to the actual murder announced by the shout, which, we later learn, was committed with a razor and “prompted by jealousy.” His accidental injury of his wife is thus made to suggest his own jealousy and the possibility of his committing some greater violence on her; but it also suggests an act of violence that we cannot yet perceive, one that seems to disturb and threaten the characters in the film. The razor and the gash on the wife's neck suggest from the start that on some still unrecognizable level we are dealing with violent sexuality.

We soon find out that the couple is childless, that their childlessness is the product of their dysfunctional sexual life which we are led to attribute to the husband. There is a telling moment when a little girl, to whom the husband has just given a piece of candy in his laboratory, is told by her mother, “Come, Daddy is waiting for us,” as if to indicate to us that the husband is not the little girl's Daddy or a Daddy in general, that Daddy is elsewhere, and that, by not being a Daddy, the husband is still a child. We should note at this point that Daddy is also missing from the interior story of the film, that though the husband's mother is alive, apparently his father is not, and that in his memories of the past, only his mother appears.

The absence of the husband's father allows for the ready identification of the wife's cousin with this figure. The cousin had sent them a statue of Kwanon, the Japanese mother-goddess, with a child in her lap, and a Japanese dagger. The dagger is both phallic and destructive, yet it is important that the statue with which it is associated is a statue of maternity and not fertility. The statue stands for the wife who is potentially a mother and the dagger for the husband's phallic desires but also for the fact that his impotence has murdered life. But we must, of course, relate the dagger to the razor with which he lacerated his wife's neck and see it as a symbol for the rage and destructive impulses that he seems to hold for the woman (and, perhaps, for women in general). The husband slowly pulls the dagger out of its scabbard and then throws it down with repulsion. His later inability to hold either razor or knife, after his dream and the scene the following night when he feels a compulsion to plunge the dagger into his wife's neck, indicates that the razor and knife have become instruments of potential destruction for him personally, in part as instruments of aggression to overcome his own phallic weakness, but also, we begin to surmise, because of his jealousy of his wife and her cousin. But the film is starting to force us to surmise something else, that, on some level, the husband associates his wife and her cousin with his mother and father, and that the razor and dagger represent his own feared punishment of castration by his father for his oedipal wishes for his mother.

Earlier in the film, when the analyst asks the husband why he and his wife cannot have babies, the husband describes to him “wild fantasies” in which he sees himself looking unhappily through some kind of trellis while his erotically clad wife makes love with her cousin. What is constantly hinted at, then, through the film's very apparent suggestion of violence in the interactions of the men and women, in the phallic symbols of the razor and knife, in the female symbol of the slash, in the closed bedrooms and separating doors, is the primal scene and the child's association of violence both with the sexual act performed between the parents, but also the punishment with which he is threatened by the father for sexually desiring his mother. No wonder the husband is unable to consummate his relationship with his wife. In his adult life, he has taken the place of the father by becoming a husband; but in his inhibition to take the place of his father he has taken upon himself a symbolic castration in his inability to have sex with his wife. Thus as castrated husband he also assumes the role of the punished son.

All of this is carefully suggested by the events in the dream, replete with sexual imagery. The large tower, shaped like a penis, for example, that suddenly arises in the middle of the Italian village indicates the sexual nature of the husband's own inadequacy but also the threatening penis of both the cousin and the father whom he represents. The husband's sexual inadequacy and his fear of castration are indicated both by the anxious way in which he rushes up the tower (three times we see the same middle-long shot of him running up the steps on the side of the tall structure), frantically leans out and gestures, and then drops his hat; and by the faces of three women—his servant, wife, and assistant—superimposed over the tolling bells, laughing at him derisively for his impotence.

The husband's guilt, not only for cutting his wife's neck and for his murderous impulses toward her, but also guilt from early childhood for his feelings toward his mother, lead to a court trial with his father-surrogate, the cousin as prosecutor. The wife bares her neck and points to the slash from her husband's razor. The storm outside melts into the world of his dreams and produces the drum rolls that announce his guilt and his execution but also announce the key sequence of the film.

The husband's laboratory has become his cell; he rushes to the window, lifts himself to the bars, and down below sees a boat with his wife and her cousin. Close-up shots of the husband frantically screaming are interspersed throughout the scene viewed in a high-angle, point-of-view shot from the husband's perspective. His wife catches a doll that is meant to represent a baby and that seems to leap into her arms from the water. She cuddles the baby and then gives it to her cousin, waving to her husband as the boat moves off. The dream ends violently, with the husband, over and over, thrusting the dagger into an image of his wife, thrusting it as if performing a savage act of intercourse. Later, during his therapy, when the analyst tells him that the baby coming from the water signifies “impending” or “desired” birth, the husband has the clue that weakens his defenses and allows him to find the episode in his past that can explain his present phobia and compulsion. The solution he works out falls short of the solution that we are supposed to read into the film, partly because the husband has not realized whose birth he has been witnessing in his dream—that his wife and her cousin as stand-ins for his parents have actually given birth to him,18 that he has witnessed the primal scene responsible for his own existence, that his screaming throughout the scene has been his screaming as a baby first entering the world, that the savage thrusts of his dagger into his wife were his angry reaction to his parents' copulation and an act of desire for his own mother.

Another psychodynamic element that ought to be noted is the strong attraction that the husband feels for his wife's cousin.19 I have suggested that in his unconscious, the husband sees in this man the usurping and threatening figure of the father who has taken his mother from him and who threatens him with castration. But though the husband may feel anger toward this man, he is strongly drawn to him. Their embraces are worth noting, but so is that moment when the two meet after so many years and the cousin pats the husband on the stomach, an action that suggests a fond husband patting the swollen belly of his pregnant wife. The screenplay for the film strongly implies that such feelings exist especially for the husband when it describes his nervous tension while he continuously and demonstratively strokes the cousin's face during their greetings. The film, then, very much suggests that part of the husband's problem may also be the strong attraction he feels for his wife's cousin, an attraction that may draw its source from his unconscious identification of this figure with his father—or perhaps I should say unconscious substitution of this figure for his father since the latter never appears in the film nor in the husband's memories. It is conceivable that the husband is also angry with his wife for taking her cousin's affections from him. The child never shakes loose of the attraction it feels for the father, a buried attraction that in the male child leaves a residue of homosexual feelings that can in later years fix on a male replacement for the father.

I shall explain this relationship further in a moment, but first I must turn to the final scene to complete our survey of the work and introduce one more interpretive level. The final scene in Secrets of A Soul always reminds me of the penultimate scene of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957). The scene in the later film is dreamed by Isak Borg, but the conclusion of Secrets is also dreamlike and unreal. In Bergman's film Isak redreams and revises the primal scene, nay sets it right by fantasizing the pastoral scene in which his parents sit by the lake, his father fishing with a long pole, and wave to him to join them. The film ends with the seventy-six year-old man smiling as he falls into a deep sleep, smiling because he has substituted for his original fantasy of the primal scene this ideal vision which now includes him. The final scene in Secrets celebrates the husband's successful psychotherapy by demonstrating that he has overcome his impotence and become a father. He fishes with a long pole in a rich pastoral setting and then rushes to his wife who holds their baby. But the husband's passionate rush to his wife, the fact that he throws his basket of fish into the water, the wavering handheld shot of him as he rushes up the hill suggest another level, another story for us to discover—the husband still acts like a child at the conclusion of the film, acts like he is rushing to his mother.

Although Abraham had written on the oral stage and made an important contribution with his work on oral sadism, I think that the advisors to the film intended us to interpret it largely on an oedipal level; but in dealing so fully with this level of the psyche, they inevitably, though unwittingly, opened up the husband's soul to other levels of interpretation. Immediately before viewing the photographs of himself, his wife, and her cousin, the husband views one of himself and his mother, suggesting, I believe, another subtext in the film and another level to his psychic conflicts. The husband feels both a bonding with and rage for his mother that seem to derive from an earlier time of his childhood than that which we have been discussing. Hanns Sachs, in his pamphlet, describes a scene that appears in the screenplay but in none of the versions of the film now available. Overwhelmed by his compulsion and the feeling that he will never be able to control it, the husband rushes to his laboratory to take poison. About to end his life, his eyes focus on a picture of his mother, and he realizes “that yet another woman plays a role in his life, one with a love that reaches farther back and is deeper than the one which joins him to his wife” (10). Bringing the picture of his mother to his lips for a parting kiss, he knocks over the bottle of poison and is saved. Sachs means the incident to indicate the saving power of his love for his mother, but this love may also be regressive and paralyzing. In the Rohauer print of the film we read the title, “In mental distress, Martin's mind turned to his mother.” Unable to live at home with his wife because of his compulsion to mutilate her with a sharp instrument, the husband goes to live with his mother while he is in therapy. There is an especially impressive scene in which his mother cuts his food before hiding the knife upon his arrival. The husband then sits at the table, eating his meat with a spoon with obvious childish pleasure. A considerable reversal and regression has taken place in his life—in this instance it is his mother who wields the phallic knife and it is the husband who regresses to helpless childhood. The husband's relationship with his mother might also further explain his homosexual feelings for the cousin in a psychoanalytic context. Freud discusses the process whereby young boys with such maternal attachments, after puberty, internalize the mother and identify with her to the point of taking on her love objects. Although he at first suggests that such a process satisfies the boy's narcissism since the love-object becomes a substitute for his childish self, he later argues that the object can also be identified with the mother's other love, the father.20 I would argue that at the same time that the child feels this excessive love for the mother, he also feels a rage at this dependency and attachment.

Indeed, the husband seems to feel rage at all the women in the film, as we can see in the dream—the derisive laughter of the three women with their heads superimposed upon the tolling bells is an indication of the shame and inadequacy he feels from his relationship with women in general. His behavior in his dream when he slashes wildly with the knife at the image of his wife, a slashing repeated at the end of his therapy as a type of abreaction that is supposed to indicate his cure,21 reminds me of Melanie Klein's terrible infant, venting its rage on the body of its mother in its fantasies (128-30). Part of the husband's rage may derive from the fact that he will never be able to father a baby with his mother; but the rage seems to date from a more primitive time, when he saw the woman as giving but also depriving—as a totally controlling figure. The husband's regression to childhood when he dines with his mother suggests that he has not yet been able to separate from her in a healthy way—she remains an internalized object that controls his dreams, his memories, and his marriage. The statue of Kwanon that the cousin has sent to the husband and his wife is more than a symbol of maternity; she also represents the powerful mother who still holds control over the husband's emotional life. The dagger that the cousin has sent them, then, and all the razors and knives in the film, take on another level of meaning. The husband stabbing wildly with a knife at the image of his wife, who, in his unconscious has come to represent his mother, is the husband attempting symbolically to cut the umbilical cord that still has him connected to this powerful figure. The husband's dream, his phobia and compulsion in the film, are all symptoms of his struggle for separation and individuation.

Secrets of a Soul, then, is a far more subtle and complex work than film history has allowed.22 The dream-sequence, an innovative and bold attempt to use the spatial and temporal flexibilities of the film medium to portray the labyrinthine and many-leveled workings of the mind, is worth the price of admission and certainly seems no less effective than dream sequences in later psychoanalytic films that were to have far more technical advantages from special-effects cinematography. But what is most compelling for the modern viewer is the film's openness to multiple interpretations, none of them contradictory. To read the film is an experience akin to reading the psyche of an individual—levels of meaning overlay one another and fuse together at the same time.23 Although we discern some kind of developmental order when viewing the film, some type of fabula, this type of ordering imposed upon the film is largely theoretical and tentative, and exists beyond the text and the immediate presence of the main character who remains a complex amalgam. The multivalenced quality to the film that I am describing achieves a significant connection with hermeneutics and interpretation in general as they have developed in the twentieth century. It is not Secrets of a Soul that has changed but the ways in which we read it. Even though the makers of the film had already undermined any clear and unequivocal meaning by compromising on what would be manifest through explicit explanation in the film and what would remain latent in the film's visual imagery, they still were certain about the work's ultimate meaning.

We might, at this point in our discussion, be more sympathetic to Freud's ultimate rejection of the motion-picture camera in his search for some kind of mechanical metaphor for the operations of the mind. Certainly film can project images on a screen in such a fashion that they resemble thought, fantasy, and dream; but Freud wished to find a sufficiently complex metaphor to describe the way the brain operates. We must admit that he was right about the limitation of film emulsion as a metaphor for the storing power of the brain, about its inability to repress and store an endless series of images of reality. The filmic process is a good metaphor for the way in which the brain registers and then recalls to consciousness at a later time some series of events—but the emulsion is limited, normally, to only one such registration. The mystic writing pad at least has the virtue of countless registrations, even though the images cannot again be reconfigured. It has the virtue of suggesting the layers of “memory-traces” that can be received, absorbed, and fused together by the mind. Freud's writing pad is an apt metaphor for the multivalenced and complex network of representations and significations of the “mnemic systems” stored in the mind (1925, 230).

An ambivalence about the validity and authenticity of any single psychoanalytic interpretation in analysis in general may be suggested by the way in which Freud seems to minimize the difference between the the terms “construction” and “reconstruction” (between putting together something for the first time and putting together something that has already existed in the past) in his essay “Construction in Analysis.” He claims that “interpretation” is something “one does to a single element of the material while “construction” is “when one lays before the subject of the analysis a piece of his early history that he has forgotten.” But he also writes, “We do not pretend that an individual construction is anything more than a conjecture which awaits examination, confirmation or rejection” (259-65). Construction, then, is dependent upon both individual interpretations of isolated elements in the analysis but also upon a broader conjecture or interpretation of the material that awaits confirmation on the part of the analysand. Freud seems fairly certain, however, that the past, for the analyst, is recoupable: “His work of construction or, if it is preferred, of reconstruction, resembles to a great extent the archaeologist's excavation of some dwelling-place that has been destroyed and buried of some ancient edifice.” Both the analyst and archeologist must “reconstruct by means of supplementing and combining the surviving remains” and both are “subject to many of the same difficulties and sources of error”; but the analyst works under better conditions since he is dealing with material, none of which is permanently destroyed and all of which is finally accessible. In spite of the partial story that Secrets of a Soul explicitly unfolds, its screenplay, like the film itself, demonstrates the same confidence we find in Freud's essay for reassembling the past when it tells us that at one point, during the analytic sessions, the Doctor's eyes light up—“the reconstruction has worked for him” (107). From then on the analytic sessions in the screenplay are divided between the husband's memories of events and sections marked “Picture of the Doctor's Reconstruction.”

Such confidence in interpretation and the recuperation of the past has been undermined in recent years in the psychoanalytic literature. Donald P. Spence, for example, has argued that the creation of the patient's life into a logical narrative is “evidence more of a general preference for closure and good fit than for the effectiveness of the technique or the usefulness of the theory” (123).24 Harold P. Blum's balanced work on the subject, Reconstruction in Psychoanalysis: Childhood Revisited and Recreated, states that reconstruction is a dynamic, contextual, and developing process that “is never ‘what really happened,’ as might be proposed by external observers or historians” (37).

This shift in analytical thinking resembles a similar change that has taken place in literary interpretation, a movement from the interpretive strategy that E. D. Hirsch, Jr. argues for in Validity in Interpretation, first published in 1967, when he says that “even though we can never be certain that our interpretive guesses are correct, we know that they can be correct and that the goal of interpretation as a discipline is constantly to increase the probability that they are correct” (207), to the type of thinking by such deconstructionists as Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller in the 1970s and 1980s and represented by Jonathan Culler's statement in On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism: “In reading particular works and rereadings of these works, deconstruction attempts to understand these phenomena of textuality—the relations of language and metalanguage, for example, or effects of externality and internality, or the possible interaction of conflicting logics” (225). The group of salvational films I am discussing are structured to produce the type of reading suggested by Culler. They are mystery films par excellence and their multiple mysteries concern the human psyche and our ability and inability to understand that psyche. These films are ultimately about processes, the process of the psychotherapist and his patient to solve the mysteries of the soul but also the process of the viewer to understand the mysteries—the various textualities and logics—of the film. If one thinks of these films as finished artifacts, as finitely definable and describable, then they must fail—Secrets of A Soul in this context would be a most unsatisfactory film.

The non-existence of any single work of art called Secrets of a Soul, the fact that there are differing versions at this time and no authorative, original version, emphasizes the impossibility of placing any closure on our attempt to get at the work's meaning. Nor do I think that we shall ever “reconstruct” such an original and definitive print. When I began researching this film, I was advised by a distinguished scholar of German film that I could not possibly write on Secrets of a Soul without using the restored print available at the Film Museum in Munich. When I finally was able to view this print, I was struck by a number of important shots and titles missing from it and available in the Rohauer print—and also impressed by a number of shots in the Munich print not present in either the Rohauer or West-Glen versions. My letter to the present director of the Film Museum in Munich, questioning why shots clearly filmed during production were not used in the original release, resulted in a reply admitting that the “restored” print must not be fully restored and asking for information on the location of the missing material. We may ultimately have a print that puts together all of the available shots, but I doubt we shall ever know the version exactly the way Pabst released it—especially since there are also some major discrepancies between the subtitles and intertitles of the available prints. Any hermeneutics concerning Secrets of a Soul must satisfy the poststructuralist and deconstructive scriptures about interpretation and meaning in general—lacking both the author's presence and any single originary visual or verbal text, the film offers instead a play of texts and meanings.

Secrets of a Soul also raises questions about the privileged status given to language in the theory of interpretation. It does so by asking us to consider whether the film's titles tell us the whole story—or even a piece of one. And it also asks us why its language, the titles we see on the screen, is to be given privileged status, is to be seen as an outside intervention and transcendent truth, and is not to be seen instead as part of the film, as another of the images that we see on the screen, as another element in the secrets and mysteries of the soul, as another text. The uncertain state of the verbal text to the film reinforces this point about the circumscribed nature of language. In the West-Glen version available in this country and in the “restored” version in Munich, which seems to be a fuller version of the former, the all-powerful analyst has disappeared from the opening and closing—we no longer see him framing the film with his act of writing. We must relate to this omission the fact that the West-Glen print has fewer titles than both the “restored” version and the one available in this country from the Rohauer Collection, and that both the West-Glen and Munich prints are missing a long series of titles that convey Dr. Orth's explanation to the husband of the nature of his illness at the end of the therapy.25Secrets of a Soul seems to demonstrate a struggle with language through the differences between its available versions—a struggle exacerbated, nay motivated by the simple fact that the film is silent, silent of spoken language. If psychoanalysis is dependent on language, if language is the passage to the unconscious, what we have in this film is a futile struggle to get to that unconscious. But I must also connect the missing shots of the analyst writing in both the West-Glen and “restored” versions to the missing father in the film as well as to the missing language. I borrow, at this point, a bit of Lacan that reinforces my matriarchal interpretation of this film. What we find in the form and substance of Secrets of a Soul is the struggle to move from the imaginary to the symbolic, the imaginary that fosters a feeling of oneness to the mother, the symbolic that is the realm of the prohibiting language that belongs to the father. If film is truly an oral experience, a taking in of the images and sounds emanating from the screen, and if the screen is itself a residual memory of the dream screen, then it follows that the very nature of film is matriarchal, and the struggle of film to move into the realm of language must be doomed.

The missing language and missing father inevitably lead us back to the role of Dr. Orth in the film. Significantly missing from his interaction with the husband are the issues of transference and, concomitantly, counter-transference—issues not absent from such later salvational films as Mine Own Executioner and Freud. The missing transference and counter-transference become especially obvious in the film's problematic handling of the husband's neurosis and cure, forcing us to impose them on the film ourselves. While we are making, for ourselves, a host of interpretations from the husband's life and dream, the analyst is creating a very limited and circumscribed story, one that emphasizes his own control over the material and over the husband. The powerful analyst has himself become an author in the act of reading, and the patient for him is a “readerly text” on which to inscribe his own meaning, a process we see in the behavior of a large number of the therapists we meet in non-comic films about psychotherapy—a process that savagely erupts in the portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

At one point in Secrets of a Soul, the husband looks at some photos that his wife has been showing to her cousin. The husband looks fondly at the picture of himself as a young boy and his mother, then one of himself, his wife, and her cousin as children, but appears disturbed when he next views a photograph of the three of them from the same period evidently taken at a Christmas celebration.26 During his psychotherapy the husband remembers the time during the Christmas party when the disturbing photograph was taken—there are two interesting aspects to his memory. The first is the doll held by the little girl since in the actual photograph we have viewed earlier in the film she is empty-handed.27 We must ponder, then, whether events took place exactly as the husband remembers them—or what we are seeing, and what he and the analyst are taking for reality, have instead been changed by projections from the husband's unconscious, altered by his own fantasies. The second interesting element in this memory is the photographer taking the picture, who seems to be aiming his camera right at us, the audience, with a mirror behind him showing his own reflection.28 The presence of the photographer almost seems to authenticate the scene of the three children the way we now see it, but this photographer appears in the husband's memory and is, therefore, only as reliable a recorder of reality as that memory itself—the photographer's reflection in the mirror specifically suggests the separation of memory from reality, the fact that memory shows us a version and reflection of actual events. The shot of the photographer, however, is also a self-reflexive image that makes us ponder more than the mind as a recorder of reality—makes us ponder the issue of art and representation, especially cinema as photography, as moving pictures with the ability and inability to represent reality, both external and internal.

But the photographer is also aiming his camera at us, involving us in his picture-making process and in the world of the film as well, involving us in the impossible search for some original source and original meaning to all these images. Both the uncertainty about the visual representations and the failure of language in the film put the burden of meaning on our interpretive faculties. Secrets of a Soul is ultimately a self-reflexive film about hermeneutics, about interpretation in general, about the process of looking for meaning. The film becomes a “readerly text” for us, an analysand, and we become the empowered analyst. We are invited to play this role, to get into this process, so long as we remember the openness of the film to multiple readings but also to our own counter-transference, the infusion of our own fantasies and defenses. Or perhaps I might say that the film on the screen becomes a unique transitional object for each of us. In analyzing the film I watch it over and over—in fact, it is the nature of film to be seen over and over, pretending to be fixed with the same images, the same titles, the same sequence. But the very act of viewing, the fact that I watch the film each time in a different frame of mind and with a different day's residue, the fact that each print will be seen in a different theater, with a different quality of image and sound, by a different audience, and by different individuals in the audience means that it can never be fixed or determinate in meaning.

And here is the final lesson we learn from viewing Secrets of a Soul: searching the film for any single neurotic pattern or pathology that explains the husband's behavior, like searching for any original or authoritative print of the film, can only be a partial success at best—meaning does not ultimately reside in the work itself but in the person making the interpretation. The three versions of the film (four if we include the one referred to in Sachs' publication) and the multiple interpretations inherent in the text open up the work to contemporary deconstructive readings, reader-response theory, and psychoanalytic concepts of counter-transference and reconstruction. Perhaps now we can understand the natural and increasing appeal of film for psychoanalysts:29 its presentation of images that create an experience not far from dreaming or daydreaming, that provoke us to interpret them not only in terms of what the film presents to us as its meaning but also in terms of something hidden and subversive; our attempt to put image into language and to fix the meaning of image through language; the fact that we are always interpreting in spite of the fact that we are always misremembering; and the fact that our discovery of the latent in the manifest and our construction of the fabula from the sujet are together a creative act that is part of the entire work's development. Films may pretend to have their own meanings, but there can be no meanings without someone doing the interpreting and, I must add, taking part in the fantasy—the viewing experience is the experience of analysis, but the true film critic realizes that he or she is both analyst and analysand. The frequent appearance of psychotherapists in film, the frequent stories that involve psychotherapy, are a tautology because film viewing, to begin with, is an analytic process—but because all tautologies are self-reflexive, such films draw attention to what the film medium is all about.


  1. The German title is Geheimnisse einer Seele. Translated as “Soul” in the English title, “Seele” maintains its original meaning rather than being deprived of its spiritual significance as when Strachey translates Freud's use of the word as “psyche” or “mind” in the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. See Bettelheim for a discussion of the English translations of Freud's works.

  2. The portrait appears in an English-language version of the film available in this country as part of the Rohauer Collection. The Filmmuseum of the Münchner Stadtmuseum claims that its version of the film is “restored,” even though the print is missing the photograph of Freud as well as a number of other shots available in the Rohauer print. Also missing the portrait, and somewhat close to the “restored” print in Munich but without all the titles, is an English version of the film available in this country through West-Glen. I shall have something more to say on these various prints of the film below.

  3. I am excluding from this category several films in which psychotherapists perform similar ameliorative roles, but which do not quite fit the category I am defining. I exclude, most notably, The Three Faces of Eve (1957) because the focus is more on the sensational issue of multiple personalities than the therapeutic alliance, David and Lisa (1963) because the film is most concerned with the pathologies and relationship of the two main characters, and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1973) because the film, though certainly about the therapeutic alliance, does not follow the particular narrative structure of mystery and discovery that I will be describing in the following pages.

  4. No mention of the film appears in a recent history of the psychiatrist in cinema by Gabbard and Gabbard.

  5. I shall directly translate the German titles from the Munich print since they are likely to be the original titles and since the English translation in the Rohauer print seems to me more discursive and melodramatic. Spellbound begins with similar titles extolling the merits of psychoanalysis in “open[ing] the locked doors of [the] mind.”

  6. The story of the genesis of the film from the perspective of Freud and his circle is told in detail in Chodorkoff and Baxter. Friedberg also gives an account of the film's genesis.

  7. I am grateful to Jan-Christopher Horak, Director of the Filmmuseum in the Münchner Stadtmuseum, for making a copy of the screenplay available, and to my colleague Peter Bauland for his help in translating the German.

  8. I am grateful to the Deutsches Institut For Filmkunde in Wiesbaden-Biebrich, Germany, for a photocopy of this work.

  9. Browne and McPherson cite this quotation from The Interpretation of Dreams and then refer to Derrida's “Freud and the Scene of Writing” in which the French philosopher discusses Freud's discovery of an adequate model for the operations of the mind in “Note on the Mystic Writing Pad” (36).

  10. In Psychotherapy, published in 1909, Münsterberg clearly argued against the unconscious as developed by Freud and argued instead for one filled with memories and learning, one directly connected to but unnoticed by the conscious mind (15-26).

  11. Interpretation as the single most important activity in literary criticism received much emphasis from the New Criticism that was so pervasive in the years following the second world war, an emphasis that was not diminished by the deconstructive movement. Indeed, deconstruction itself became an interpretive strategy, e.g., the work's meaning was the difficulty or impossibility of meaning (see Culler for a discussion of interpretation in the context of the New Criticism and deconstruction, 3-17). The New Criticism can be seen as part of the development of hermeneutics in Western thought from the writing of the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey in the late nineteenth century. Paul Ricoeur's Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation is essential reading for understanding the relationship of Freud's thinking to hermeneutics.

  12. See especially Tomashevsky's “Thématique,” 267-69.

  13. An obvious example of this process takes place in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) when the psychiatrist at the end of the film explains the mystery and the pathology of Norman Bates that has been responsible for that mystery; but in such films as Robert Siodmak's The Dark Mirror (1946) and Robert Benton's Still of the Night (1982) the psychotherapy plays a more pervasive and crucial role in solving an external mystery.

  14. Variations on this theme appear in Stanley Kramer's Home of the Brave (1949) and Barbra Streisand's Prince of Tides (1991).

  15. There is an interesting variation on this type of double exposure in Spellbound when the hero discovers his earliest trauma, his reaction as a young boy to his accidental killing of his brother, and, as a result, then remembers the more recent trauma that has caused his present amnesia, his reaction to the murder of the doctor. In this film the solving of the two internal mysteries frees the character from suspicion and allows for the solution to an external mystery.

  16. The “restored” version in the Munich Museum and the West-Glen print begin with the opening titles concerning psychoanalysis followed by the narrative itself, which begins with a shot of the husband sharpening his razor and then a mirror shot of him shaving himself—this entire shaving sequence is missing from the narrative proper in the Rohauer print, which begins with the husband entering his wife's bedroom. While the husband is identified as Martin Fellman in Dr. Orth's notebook as well as on two occasions during the film and his wife's cousin is identified as Erich at the end of his letter to the couple in the Rohauer print, their names are totally missing from both the Munich and West-Glen prints.

  17. Sachs uses the word “Fehlhandlung” or faulty action instead of Freud's “Fehlleistung” or faulty function. The editor of the Standard Edition of Freud's works tells us that no equivalent term to “Fehlleistung” existed in English and the word “parapraxis” had to be invented (1901, viii).

  18. A point also made by Browne and McPherson in their discussion of the film's oedipal theme.

  19. A relationship first touched upon by Chodorkoff and Baxter.

  20. Freud at first identified the loved object with the self because his theory of homosexuality was partly based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci, who was raised for the first three years of his life without a father (1910, 98-100). Since the husband's father is totally absent in Secrets of A Soul such an interpretation has some credence, but the oedipal elements in the film clearly show the husband's identification of the cousin with his father. It is certainly possible that the strong mother and the absence of the father in early childhood can later produce a homosexual configuration where the love object represents both the self and the missing father, a fusion that further compensates for the parental absence. Later, in “Some Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia, and Homosexuality,” Freud argued that homosexuality may be induced by the high regard for the male organ and also by either regard for the father or fear of him (in the later case his danger is removed by making him the loved object). Both “the clinging to a condition of the penis in the object, as well as the retiring in favor of the father—may be ascribed to the castration complex” (231).

  21. The analyst points out that the husband is cured because he is now holding a knife. Abreaction is a type of catharsis, normally achieved through language, that frees the patient from an affect that is the product of some early trauma. The concept is associated with Freud's early work on hysteria and was frequently achieved through hypnosis, though some form of abreaction continued to be sought in psychoanalytic treatment under certain conditions. Many films featuring psychotherapy, including most of the salvational psychoanalytic films, use abreaction as the denouement of their plots because of its dramatic nature.

  22. The work has generally been judged as visually interesting but intellectually superficial (see, for example, Kracauer's assessment, 170-72).

  23. There are obviously more interpretive possibilities than the series I have outlined here, each dependent on one's psychoanalytic leanings. In addition to 1) Dr. Orth's logical, though incomplete narrative; 2) the oedipal interpretation as suggested by the film's visual imagery; 3) the implications of homosexual feelings between the two male figures from their interactions; and 4) my pre-oedipal reading, the film can easily support 5) an object-relations approach in terms of the husband's relationships with his mother and father as projected onto his involvement with his wife and her cousin; 6) a self-psychology interpretation through a focus on the husband's narcissistic injuries and the structure of his self.

  24. He also states that “The preferred explanation for a series of symptoms tends to be cast in terms of single events—the primal scene is the outstanding example” (144).

  25. The titles in this portion of the Rohauer version appear as subtitles, except for the last part of this explanation that appears as intertitles. The West-Glen and “restored” versions use only subtitles for the analyst's explanation.

  26. In the screenplay, the oedipal significance of this photograph is underscored when the wife and her cousin are described as playing husband and wife with a cradle and doll while the husband watches sadly from a distance. Later that night, the husband again looks at the photograph which seems to undergo a strange transformation before his eyes: both his wife and cousin grow older continuing to play mother and father, while he remains the young child looking sadly on.

  27. The husband remembers that at this Christmas celebration his mother gave him her new baby to hold. In his mind, he must have felt that he was no longer the play father, but his own father, and his little sibling was his and his mother's child. When his wife, as the little girl, felt deserted by him as a result of his mother's action and gave the doll to her cousin, the husband conflated the two women in his mind and felt rejected by his mother. Because the husband associated the little girl with his mother, he, in fact, also became the doll that she gave to the cousin, and the girl and her cousin his parents. The doll in his memory is related to the doll that his wife holds while in the boat with her cousin at the end of the husband's dream, when he dreams his own birth.

  28. August Ruhs suggests that the man with the camera is the husband's father reminding us of the filmmaker with his constant cinematic references to the primal scene beneath the sublimated events of the film itself (31). Browne and McPherson also relate the primal scene to this photograph and the husband's memory of the photograph being shot (44).

  29. I refer not only to the large number of classes on film now part of psychoanalytic training and the multitude of lectures on films given by psychoanalysts, but also to such groups as The Forum for the Psychoanalytic Study of Film in Washington, D.C., which promote these activities as well as further communication between analysts and film scholars on the subject of film.


Abraham, Karl. 1924. “A Short Study of the Development of the Libido, Viewed in the Light of Mental Disorders.” Selected Papers. London: Hogarth Press, 1927. 418-501.

Baudry, Jean Louis. 1970. “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus.” Trans. Alan Williams. Film Quarterly 28 (1974-75). 39-47.

Bettelheim, Bruno. Freud and Man's Soul. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1983.

Blum, Harold P. Reconstruction in Psychoanalysis: Childhood Revisited and Recreated. Madison, Conn.: International Universities Press, 1994.

Browne, Nick and Bruce McPherson. “Dream and Photography in a Psychoanalytic Film: Secrets of A Soul.Dreamworks 1 (Spring 1980): 35-45.

Chodorkoff, Bernard and Seymour Baxter. “Secrets of a Soul: An Early Psychoanalytic Film Venture.” American Imago 31 (Winter 1974): 319-34.

Culler, Jonathan. The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Eberwein, Robert T. Film and the Dream Screen: A Sleep and a Forgetting. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Freud, Sigmund and Karl Abraham. A Psycho-Analytic Dialogue: The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Karl Abraham. Ed. Hilda C. Abraham and Ernst L. Freud. Trans. Bernard Marsh and Hilda C. Abraham. London: The Hogarth Press, 1965.

Freud, Sigmund. 1900. The Interpretation of Dreams. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74. Vols. 4 and 5.

———. 1901. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Standard Edition. Vol. 6.

———. 1910. “Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood.” Standard Edition. 11: 59-137.

———. 1922. “Some Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia, and Homosexuality.” Standard Edition. 18: 221-32.

———. 1925. “A Note Upon a Mystic Writing Pad.” Standard Edition. 19: 226-232.

———. 1937. “Construction in Analysis.” Standard Edition. 23: 256-269.

Friedberg, Anne. “An Unheimlich Maneuver between Psychoanalysis and the Cinema: Secrets of a Soul (1926).The Films of G. W. Pabst: An Extraterritorial Cinema. 1990. Ed. Eric Rentschler. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990. 41-51.

Gabbard, Krin and Glen O. Gabbard. Psychiatry and the Cinema. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.

Jones, Ernest. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 3: The Last Phase, 1919-39. New York: Basic Books, 1957.

Klein, Melanie. 1932. The Psycho-Analysis of Children. Trans. Alix Strachey. Revised H. A. Thorner. New York: Delacorte, 1975.

Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “The Sorcerer and his Magic.” Structural Anthropology. Trans. Clair Jacobson and Brooke Grudfest Shoepf. Anchor Books. New York: Doubleday, 1967. 161-80.

Metz, Christian. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster and Alfred Guzzetti. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Münsterberg, Hugo. Psychotherapy. New York: Moffat, Yard and Co., 1912.

———. The Photoplay: A Psychological Study. New York: D. Appleton, 1916.

Ricoeur, Paul. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. Trans. Denis Savage. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970.

Ross, Colin and Hans Neumann. Manuscript. Die Geheimnisse der Seele, Psychoanalytisches Filmwerk. Zweiter Teil: Das Geheimnis einer Seele, Ein Psychoalytisches Kammerspiel. Berlin: Kulturabteilung der UFA, n.d.

Ruhs, August. “Geheimnisse Einer Seele: Ein Freud-Loses Projekt.” G. W. Pabst. Ed. Gottfried Schlemmer, Bernard Riff, and Georg Haberl. Münster: Maks Publikationen, 1990. 20-32.

Sachs, Hanns. Psychoanalyse: Rätsel des Unbewussten. Berlin: Lichtbild-Bühne, 1926.

Spence, Donald P. Narrative Truth and Historical Truth: Meaning and Interpretation in Psychoanalysis. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982.

Tomashevsky, Boris. “Thématique.” Théorie de la littérature. Ed. Tzvetan Todorov. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1965. 263-307.

Additional coverage of Pabst's life and career is contained in the following source published by the Gale Group: International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Directors, Vol. 2.


Principal Works