Twenty Minutes from Before the War

Source: Extracts from Joseph Roth (trans. Michael Hofmann), ‘Twenty Minutes from Before the War’, in The White Cities: Reports from France 1925-1939 (London: Granta, 2004), pp. 175, 177-178. Originally published in German in Frankfurter Zeitung, 11 June 1926

Text: In a Parisian cinema they are showing old newsreel footage – infinitely past, because sundered by us from the war – of such dusty novelties as the fashions, dances, the five o’clock teas, of an era that waltzed straight out of its pathetic whimsicality into a bloody horror; an epoch so deceitful that it didn’t even experience the truth of its own demise. It was already dead by the time it died. Its children were living ghosts, having been molded from papier-mâché in, oh, let’s say, pergolas.

These old films, changed every time there’s a change of program, appear under the heading “Twenty Minutes from Before the War.” It’s because of them that the cinema is sold out every day, and sometimes full to bursting. The sons all want to go, to laugh at their fathers. The great family album of the past is opened up before their eyes. It is made up of graves that elicit not shudders of horror but irresistible mirth. The effect of the pictures is like that of twenty top hats at a funeral: The hats are so ridiculous that they rather take the edge of the coffin. The result is a rather peculiar sort of dread that touches not the soul but the funny bone.


These are the sort of shocking displays we now put ourselves through, we, the children of the present day, we, who have gotten over Darwin and Ibsen, give ourselves over to the exotic woman with the “pleureuse” veil, the suffragette, the parade uniform, the umbrella, the large man with the goatee, , the train, and the towering hairdo made of pigtails and spikes; we, who go to Negro revues and watch naked girls, we toughened and bred in drum fire, scornful of beautiful lies, we devotees, as we would have it, of the ugly truth.

We sit in front of the whole deceitful misery of our fathers, who appear to have invented the cinema purely to show us themselves in their full absurdity, and we laugh, we laugh. We have prizefights and sports fans, America and endurance runners, girls drilled by preachers, a whole internationale of Sunday windbreakers. But we don’t have bodies instead of breasts, feather boas instead of necks, curtains instead of legs, and top hats in place of mourning! Where the goose-step is still practised, we know it’s dead; really, at the worst, the parades of our times are to celebrate living memorials (not dead ones). We know that once we had the “pleureuse,” the steel helmet was only a matter of time, that there’s a straight path from the modest veil to the gas mask, and from the pergola to the trench. And those unarmed reservists who plowed the fields of honor and sowed us there with their pathetic blessings – that deceitful eve of the war is something that makes us laugh our heads off every evening, for twenty minutes, and no longer.

Comments: Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was an Austrian journalist and novelist, best known for his novel Radetzky March. The full article describes the various newsreel scenes shown: military parades, Parisian crowds, an instructor illustrating the latest dance craze, the latest creations from a fashion house, and pre-war fiction films.

The Cinema in the Arena

Source: Extract from Joseph Roth (trans. Michael Hofmann), ‘The Cinema in the Arena’, in Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France 1925-1939 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), pp. 38-40. Originally published in German in Frankfurter Zeitung, 12 September 1925

Text: The arena of Nîmes holds celebrated bullfights some afternoons, but in the evenings it houses a cinema, which is a rather more cultured thing than a bullfight. Currently. it is playing The Ten Commandments, that great American film that has already been shown in Germany. In the evening I take myself to the arena.

You have to hope it will stay dry, and in Nîmes the chances of that are good. It rains very rarely here, and never for long. The stones cool off in the evening. A couple of arc lamps light up half the arena. The other half is left in shade. The ghostly white forms of the huge crumbling blocks of stone loom up out of it. They have already been through so much, these stones. In the Middle Ages, two hundred families lived in the walls of the arena and built a church (in one of the spacious arches). In wartime the arena became a fortress. It survived the changing epochs, and time and again was emblematic of its era. Now, in 1925, it is no longer a church but a cinema, admittedly a cinema showing The Ten Commandments. At a time when these commandments are not much obeyed, that’s already saying something.

In the middle of the arena there’s the screen, like a white board in a classroom. In the archway opposite, the projector is purring away. The orchestra sits in front of the screen. The members of the audience (for fifty centimes) are free to wander about on the upper and lower stone seats. Some, who prefer to be cool and lofty, stand on the top edge of the wall, black against the blue sky. It’s a most marvelous cinema, cool, clean, without any danger of fire, and much more magnificent than a cinema has any need to be. If any Americans happen by, then surely by next year they’ll have put up a big concrete bowl, the largest in the world, with velvet trim, water closets, and glass roof.

Before the show the children play catch behind the screen, and hide-and-seek, and grandmother’s footsteps. All the children of Nîmes – and the people here have many children – go to the cinema. The mothers don’t forget to bring their infants. The youngest visitors are admitted free, though admittedly they don’t see anything but lie on their backs under the night sky, with open mouths as though to swallow the stars.

It seems almost feasible. Hereabouts the night sky is very open-handed with shooting stars. They fall not in an are, as they do in the North, but sideways, as if the heavens were rotating. There are several kinds of shooting stars. While the sentimental, ocean-diluted Bible is being shown on screen, the best thing to do is watch the shooting stars. Some are large, red, and lumpy. They slowly wipe across the sky, as though they were strolling, and leave a thin, bloody trail. Others again are small, swift, and silver. They fly like bullets. Others glow like little running suns and brighten the horizon considerably for quite some time.

Sometimes it’s as though the heavens opened and showed us a glimpse of red-gold lining. Then the split quickly closes, and the majesty is once more hidden for good.

From time to time a large, shooting star falls quite close. Then it’s like a silver rain. Each one vanishes in the same direction. Then the apparent quiet is restored to the deep blue, that everlasting fixity of the stars, of which we still manage to feel that they move, even if we didn’t know it.

There they are again, the old familiar constellations that remind everyone of childhood, because it was only as a child that one gazed at them so raptly. They are everywhere. There you are, so remote from your childhood, and yet you meet it again. That’s how small the world is.

And if you think some of it is foreign, you’re mistaken. Everywhere is home. The Great Bear is a little nearer, that’s all.

It was a good idea to put on a film in the old Roman arena. In such a cinema you come to comforting conclusions, as long as you look at the sky, rather than the screen.

Comments: Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was an Austrian journalist and novelist, best known for his novel Radetzky March. The Arena of Nîmes is a Roman amphitheatre built around AD 70 and is used today for public events, including concerts. The film mentioned is The Ten Commandments (USA 1923), directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

A Cinema in the Harbour

Source: Extract from Joseph Roth (trans. Michael Hofmann), ‘A Cinema in the Harbour’, in Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France 1925-1939 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), pp. 64-66 . Originally published in German in Frankfurter Zeitung, 4 November 1925

Text: The cinema faces the ships. From out at sea a man who has long lived without the pleasures of terra firma can take out his binoculars and make out the large, colourful posters. The cinema goes by the modest name “Cosmos.” Today, it is showing the film called Red Wolves.

The Red Wolves are a band of robbers in the Abruzzi. They have kidnapped the beautiful Margot and hidden her in a high tower miles from anywhere. Ah, but what is miles from anywhere, how high is high? A brave young man by the name of Cesare joins the Red Wolves, but only for appearances: What he really wants is to free Margot.

You probably imagine joining a band of robbers is a simple matter? Let me tell you! It’s incredibly difficult.You need to take a battery of tests, in wrestling, in knife fighting, and in arm wrestling. This series of tests takes up most of the film. Cesare comes through them and gains the applause not only of the Red Wolves but of the audience here, who dream of being robbers in the Abruzzi.

The film about the Red Wolves is screened eight times a day, from ten in the morning until midnight. Cesare passes his tests eight times a day, and eight times the audience gets enraptured, a third of them spending the entire day in the cinema. This one-third are women and children. By day it’s cooler in the dark cinema than it is in their own cramped apartments and in the even more cramped streets. So the women go there to cool off. Children get in for nothing. Every adult visitor brings at least four children with her. She pays for one seat and occupies five.

In the evening the men, dockworkers in the harbour, come along. They eat, they wash, and they go to the cinema. They watched and cheered Cesare’s deeds yesterday and the day before yesterday. But it’s not possible to see enough of such heroism, if you are nothing more than a dockworker – with the dream in your heart of being a robber in the Abruzzi.

Even more romantic than a harbour is the robbers’ cave in the Abruzzi. The day labourer who is today a fisherman, tomorrow gets taken on as a seaman, and the day after finds himself in a distant port watching the film about the Red Wolves finds his life insufficiently romantic.

I like to imagine the robbers in the Abruzzi going to the cinema to see a film about the sea dogs of Marseilles. The robbers in the mountain envy the men of the port. The robber treats his calling as a humdrum job, and dreams of something romantic and exotic elsewhere. It is these reciprocal yearnings that make the film industry tick.

And yet the men in the harbour have roughly the same traits as the men of the mountains. The dockers stab with Corsican knives; they are passionate arm wrestlers with their friends, a stage wrestling matches with their colleagues. They are pleased to see that these same recreations are also popular in the Abruzzi. While still sitting in the cinema, they pull out their knives, and, not taking their eyes off the screen, give their neighbour a playful little stab.

The neighbour, who doesn’t stand for this sort of nonsense, challenges his friend to step up in front of the screen and make like Cesare.

So in the cinema, you don’t just see the deeds of men of the Abruzzi but also those of the men of Marseilles.

Meanwhile the pianist keeps banging out La Fille du Régiment. No wonder the viewers are getting restive. They want a different tune. The pianist gets up, walks out, and the film continues without music.

A little later I see a large, angry-looking man. He’s not putting up with the piano-player’s rudeness. One knows what it means when a very large, very broad man, with a broad red belt slung around his hips, with about one inch of forehead and with hands like iron shovels, won’t stand for the impertinence of a tiny piano player in evening dress and umbrella.

Five minutes later the pianist is wriggling in the iron grip of the irate cinemagoer, the lights go on, and everyone laughs. The giant waves to the crowd with his left hand, plunks the pianist down in front of his instrument, and decrees the tune desired by the majority.

And the film carries on. …

Comments: Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was an Austrian journalist and novelist, best known for his novel Radetzky March. I have not been able to identify any film of this period called ‘The Red Wolves’ (or a translation of this) or which features a robber band called by that name.