Berlin Alexanderplatz

Source: Alfred Döblin (trans. Eugene Jolas), [Berlin] Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf (London: Secker & Warburg, 1974 – orig. pub. 1929, English translation orig. pub. 1931), pp. 25-26

Text: MARKET DULL, LATER BEARS VERY ACTIVE, HAMBURG DEPRESSED, LONDON WEAKER

It was raining. To the left in Münzstrasse signs sparkled in front of the movies. At the corner he was unable to pass, the people were standing in front of a fence where there was a deep hole, the tram-car tracks ran on planks laid across the space, a car was just riding slowly over them. Aha, they are building an underground station, must be work to be had in Berlin. Another movie. Children under seventeen not allowed. On the huge poster a beet-red gentleman was standing on a staircase, while a peach of a young girl embraced his legs, she lay on the stairs, and he stood up above with a leering expression on his face. Undeneath was written: No Parents, Fate of an Orphaned Child, in Six Reels. Yes, I’ll take a look at that. The orchestrion was banging away. Price sixty pfennigs.

A man to the woman cashier: “Say, Fraulein, is it any cheaper for an old territorial without a belly?” “No, only for children under five months with a teat.” “Good. That’s our age. New-born on the instalment plan.” “All right, make it fifty then, get along in.” Behind him there meandered a young chap, slim of build, with a muffler on: “Hey, lady, I’d like to get in free.” “You’d like a lot. Does your mother know you’re out?” “Well, can I get in?” “In where?” “The movie.” “There’s no movie here.” “You really mean it, there’s no movie here?” She called through the window of the ticket-office to the watchman at the door: “Say Max, come here a minute. Here’s a fellow wants to know if there’s a movie here. He’s got no money. Go ahead and show him what we’ve got here.” “What we’ve got here, young fellow? You ain’t noticed it yet? This is the poor-box, Münzstrasse division.” He pushed the slim fellow out of the ticket-office, showed him his fist: “If you want me to, I’ll give you what’s comin’ to you right off the bat.”

Franz pushed on in. It just happened to be an intermission. The long room was packed full, 90 per cent men with caps on, they don’t take them off. The three lamps on the ceiling are covered with red. In front, a yellow piano with packages on top of it. The orchestrion makes a continuous racket. Then it gets dark and the film starts. A goose-girl is to be turned into a lady, just why, is not made so clear, at least not right in the middle. She wiped her nose with her hand, she scratched her behind on the staircase, everybody in the movie laughed. Franz thought it was quite wonderful, when the tittering began around him. Just people, free people, amusing themselves, nobody has a right to say anything to them, simply lovely, and I right here among ’em! It went on. The high-toned Baron had a sweetheart who lay in a hammock and stretched her legs vertically in the air. The girl had drawers on. That’s something. Wonder why people get so excited about that dirty goose-girl and her licking the platters clean? Again the girl with the slim legs flashed by. The Baron had left her alone, now she toppled out of the hammock, and flopped into the grass, lay there a long time. Franz stared at the screen, there was already another picture, but he still saw her toppling out and lying there for a long while. He gnawed his tongue, cripes, what was that? But when finally the one who had been the goose-girl’s lover embraced this fine lady, the skin of his chest felt hot as if he had been embracing her himself. It went all over him and made him weak.

Comments: Bruno Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) was a German doctor and novelist, famed for his modernist novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which was filmed in 1931 and 1980. It follows the fortunes of Franz Biberkopf, a murderer released from prison, as he experiences Berlin amid the rise of Nazism. An orchestrion was a machine that played multi-part music automatically by means of a cylinder or music rolls. No Parents is a fictitious title.

Japanese Cinema

Source: Carl Koch, from ‘Japanese Cinema’, Close-up vol. VIII no. 4 (December 1931), pp. 296-298

Text: The Japanese film director and actor, Katsumi, recently showed me his latest film in a Berlin projection room. This film, in which he played the main role, told of the downfall of a Samurai who fought against the reigning Shogun about two centuries ago. The plot developed slowly and was punctuated by innumerable captions, until after about 6,000 feet a tremendous fight broke out between the Samurai and (apparently) the whole assembled bodyguard of the Shogun. This ended in the hero’s suicide after an incredible struggle against overwhelming odds. Although the movements were extremely interesting both in their details and in the way they followed through, yet it was clearly impossible to expect a European audience to tolerate anything so long. In fact, I was quite at a loss how this film could be adapted for the European market.

A few weeks later I received an invitation from Katsumi to a Sunday morning performance of this film in a small west-end cinema, where it was to be privately shown to the Japanese colony in Berlin. As I came into the cinema, I was given a printed slip containing a synopsis of the film. At the side of the screen was a lectern where Katsumi stood.

The film started. At the same time Katsumi began a running commentary to the preliminary titles in the normal explanatory tones of a narrator. The Samurai were strolling about on the screen. Silence. The actors conversed with each other. The voice began again, no longer in explanatory, everyday tones, but using the guttural utterance of the Japanese classical theatre to provide an exact accompaniment to the various actors’ conversation. Then a long caption, unaccompanied perhaps for half its length. Then some monotonous instrument like a guitar began to play, continued through the following scenes and stopped suddenly in the middle of a scene. The film continued. Silence. Then, the quiet explanatory voice of the speaker. A humorous remark elicited a titter from the audience — apparently some personal allusion of the speaker’s. Presently the voice became pathetic, continued so through scenes and captions, and then suddenly stopped dead. Silence. More music. Single plucked notes with long pauses in between. Another conversation in the deep gutteral style of the classical theatre, very carefully synchronised with the film and the various actors, who were made to speak sometimes high, sometimes low, clearly, confusedly, slowly or quickly, according to the context. Silence again. On the screen the chief of Shogun’s bodyguard vainly interrogated his daughter whom he had sent to spy on the hero in order to convict him of treason. She was in love with the hero and attempted to persuade her father that she had been unable to discover anything. The old man had now shot his last bolt. He sat there for some time, alone, motionless. Suddenly a gesture — and a man’s shriek. The girl rushed back into the room and flung herself on her father. He tried to free himself in order to reach his sword. His daughter tried to prevent him. The same terrible shriek recurred everytime the old man made some violent effort. At last his daughter broke down, gave him the required information and betrayed her lover. Light guitar music. It was all very thrilling. Finally came the fight, which was accompanied, partly by an exciting rhythmic figure that rose and fell, partly by the solemn declamation of some text that was probably well known to all the Japanese present.

A movie had suddenly been turned into a talkie by the extraordinary art of the speaker, the restrained but subtly differentiated use of different kinds of elocution, and the persistence of the transparent monodic, nearly always unisonal, music. This music had no resemblance to the illustrative music usually to be heard in the European cinema; it ran counter to the action on the screen in a kind of dialectical counterpoint. (For instance, doleful music usually accompanied gay scenes on the screen; quick and lively music, slow sad scenes.) The restraint with which this was carried out made for clearness, lucidity, excitement, variety. The subtleties of tone often lent scenes which had dragged in the projection room an extraordinary tension.

This is the way in which films are shown in Japanese cinemas. The idea of an announcer and a completely independent musical accompaniment is foreign to us, and so we can hardly hope to import Japanese films with any success, since, in spite of adaptation and revision, some passages would still remain too long and deliberate in tempo, and (apart from that) the film sequences are not such as are customary according to the unwritten convention between public and producer here in Europe.

Comments: Carl Koch (1892-1963) was a German film director, whose credits included Nippon, a compilation short of extracts from Japanese films, which at this time were scarcely known about in the West. Katsumi is presumably the Japanese actor-director Yôtarô Katsumi. The article is illustrated with stills from a Japanese film whose title is given as The Torch (made by the Shochiku company). My thanks to Dawid Glownia for bringing this passage to my attention.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

The Log of a Noncombatant

Source: Horace Green, The Log of a Noncombatant (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915), pp. 127-129

Text: I was conscious of a distinct break between the crisp, official atmosphere of Berlin — where the war hurts least and the mechanical appearance of success is strong — and the sentiment of the rank and file of people whose suffering, as the war continued, became a more and more important factor.

On the night of my second arrival in the capital I sat in the rear of a motion-picture theater, just off the Friedrichstrasse. It was a long, dark hallway, such as one may see in any of the cheaper “movies” on Washington Street or Broadway, where the audience sits in silence broken by the whirr of the cinematograph and in darkness pierced by the flickering light upon the screen. The woman in the seat beside mine was the typical Hausfrau of the middle class. She was, of course, dressed in mourning: the heavy veil, which was thrown back, revealed the expression so common to the German widow of to-day — that set, defiant look which begs no pity, and seems to say: “We’ve lost them once; we’d endure the same torture again if we had to.” It was a sad enough story that the reel clicked off, and about as melodramatic as “movies” usually are. But the woman kept herself well in hand, since the public display of grief is forbidden and they who sorrow must sorrow alone.

A Bavarian boy, as I recall it, — the youngest son, — runs away from home to join his father’s regiment in Poland. When his captain calls for volunteers for a dangerous mission, the boy steps forward. For hours they trudge over the snow until surrounded by a Cossack patrol. The Bavarian boy, although having a chance to escape, goes back under fire to succor his wounded comrade. Just as he is about to drag the comrade into the zone of safety, a bullet pierces his lung. For two days he suffers torture on the snow. The body is found and brought home to his mother.

Now and then the widow next me bit her lip and clenched her fist, but she gave no other sign of emotion. Another film was thrown on the screen, humorous, I believe. Suddenly the woman began to laugh. She did not stop laughing. It was a long, mirthless, dry, uncanny sort of cackle. People stared. She laughed still louder. An usher came down the aisle, and stood there, uncertain what to do. Hysterics had given way to weeping: the tears were now streaming down the woman’s face. She tried to control herself, but could not, and then arose and between choking sobs and laughter fled from the darkened room out into the Friedrichstrasse.

Comments: Horace Green (1885-?) was an American journalist with the New York Evening Post, who visited Belgium and Germany during first few months of the First World War.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Berlin Childhood around 1900

kaiser-panorama

Source: Walter Benjamin (trans. Howard Eiland), Berlin Childhood around 1900 (Cambridge, Mass./London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 42-44

Text: One of the great attractions of the travel scenes found in the Imperial Panorama was that it did not matter where you began the cycle. Because the viewing screen, with places to sit before it, was circular, each picture would pass through all the stations; from these you looked, each time, through a double window into the faintly tinted depths of the image. There was always a seat available. And especially toward the end of my childhood, when fashion was already turning its back on the Imperial Panorama, one got used to taking the tour in a half-empty room.

There was no music in the Imperial Panorama – in contrast to films, where music makes traveling so soporific. But there was a small, genuinely disturbing effect that seemed to me superior. This was the ringing of a little bell that sounded a few seconds before each picture moved off with a jolt, in order to make way first for an empty space and then for the next image. And every time it rang, the mountains with their humble foothills, the cities with their mirror-bright windows, the railroad stations with their clouds of dirty yellow smoke, the vineyards down to the smallest leaf, were suffused with the ache of departure. I formed the conviction that it was impossible to exhaust the splendors of the scene at just one sitting. Hence my intention (which I never realized) of coming by again the following day. Before I could make up my mind, however, the entire apparatus, from which I was separated by a wooden railing, would begin to tremble; the picture would sway within its little frame and then immediately trundle off to the left, as I looked on.

The art forms that survived here all died out with the coming of the twentieth century. At its inception, they found their last audience in children. Distant worlds were not always strange to these arts. And it so happened that the longing such worlds aroused spoke more to the home than to anything unknown. Thus it was that, one afternoon, while seated before a transparency of the little town of Aix, I tried to persuade myself that, once upon a time, I must have played on the patch of pavement that is guarded by the old plane trees of the Cours Mirabeau.

When it rained, there was no pausing out front to survey the list of fifty pictures. I went inside and found in fjords and under coconut palms the same light that illuminated my desk in the evening when I did my schoolwork. It may have been a defect in the lighting system that suddenly caused the landscape to lose its color. But there it lay, quite silent under its ashen sky. It was as though I could have heard even wind and church bells if only I had been more attentive.

Comments: Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German philosopher, essayist and cultural commentator. His idiosyncratic memoir of observational pieces was not published in collected form in his lifetime, and not until 1989 in a form that most closely matches the author’s intentions. The Kaiserpanorama, invented by August Fuhrmann in 1880, was a cylindrical construction with usually twenty-five seats around its perimeter, at which observers would look through twin lenses to view rotating stereoscopic images. Fifty images were on offer at any one time. The Berlin Kaiserpanorama was located off Friedrichstrasse. The above image (from Wikimedia Commons) shows the Berlin Kaiserpanorama, c.1880.

The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan

Source: Count Harry Kessler (translated and edited by Charles Kessler), The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan 1918-1939 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson). p. 364

Text: Monday, 15 July 1929 / Berlin
Read in the BZ, midday edition, that Hofmannstahl’s elder son, Franz, has shot himself. At half past two cabled Hugo. In the evening went to Stroheim’s film The Wedding March. A work of genius which, with the savagery of a George Grosz, shows up the hollowness of pre-war Vienna’s glamour and its sugary trashiness of sentiment (that of Hollywood as well, incidentally). Here is the precise obverse of what has always enthralled Hofmannstahl and held him spellbound.

Comment: Count Harry Kessler (1868-1937) was an Anglo-German aristocrat and diplomat. His diaries are an exceptionally vivid and observant account of art and politics in Weimar Germany. The Wedding March (USA 1928) was directed by and starred Erich von Stroheim. Hugo von Hofmanstahl was an Austrian novelist and librettist. He died of a stroke at his son’s funeral the day after this diary entry.