I sometimes allow my thoughts to dwell on the film—one day I shall be uttering them at length. But just now all I can say is, that lately I have come to entertain feelings for this phenomenon of our time that amount to a lively interest, even almost to a passion. I go often to the cinema; for hours on end I do not tire of the joys of spectacle spiced with music; whether it be travel pictures, scenes from the wild, the weekly news of the world, a diverting piece of tomfoolery, a “thriller” or a “shocker,” or a touching tale of love. The actors must be good to look at, with a gift of expression, vain if you like but never unnatural; the “story” itself may be vastly silly, provided—as is nearly always the case to-day—the silliness or sentimentality is set in a frame of scenic and mimic detail which is true to life and to reality, so that the human triumphs persistently over the crude falsity of the performance as a whole.
I used the word phenomenon above—and advisedly, since in my view the film has little to do with art, and I would not therefore approach it with criteria drawn from the artistic sphere, as do certain humanistic-minded and conservative souls, who then in sorrow and contempt turn away their eyes from the offending spectacle as from a base-born and inordinately democratic form of mass entertainment. For me, I despise it myself—but I love it too. It is not art, it is life, it is actuality. Compared with art’s intellectual appeal its own is crudely sensational; it is the same as that of life itself upon a passive onlooker, who at the same time is aware that he himself is pretty comfortable and that what he sees is “nothing but a play.” At the same time his sensations are heightened by the accompanying music. But now tell me: why is it people weep so, at the cinema? Or, rather, why do they fairly howl, like a maidservant on her afternoon out? We all went to the first performance of The Big Parade1 and met Olaf Gulbransson at the exit. That jolly and muscular Eskimo was drowned in tears. “I haven’t wiped my face yet,” said he by way of excuse: we stood there together for a while, quite simply, unaffectedly, with streaming eyes. Is that the mood in which one turns away from a work of art, leaves a picture, puts down a finished book? It is true, elderly gentlemen do shed tears, at Alt Heidelberg, when they hear “O alte Burschenherrlichkeit”; but even elderly gentlemen do not weep over Shakespeare, or Kleist, or Gerhard Hauptmann. Say what you like, the atmosphere of art is cool; it is a sphere of spiritual valuations, of transmuted values; a world of style, a manuscript world, objectively, in the most personal sense, preoccupied with form; a sphere of the understanding—” denn sie kommt aus dem Verstande “ says Goethe. It is chaste and elegant, it is significant, it is serene; its agitations are kept sternly at second hand; you are at court, you control yourself. But take a pair of lovers on the screen, two young folk as pretty as pictures, bidding each other an eternal farewell in a real garden, with the grass waving in the wind—to the accompaniment of the meltingest of music; and who could resist them, who would not blissfully let flow the tear that wells to the eye? For it is all raw material, it has not been transmuted, it is life at first hand; it is warm and heartfelt, it affects one like onions or sneezewort. I feel a tear trickling down in the darkness, and in silence, with dignity, I rub it into my cheekbone with my finger-tip.
And the film has, quite specifically, nothing to do with the drama. It is narrative in pictures. That these faces are present to your sight does not prevent their greatest effectiveness from being in its nature epic; and in this sphere, if in any, the film approaches literary art. It is much too genuine to be theatre. The stage setting is based upon delusion, the scenery of the film is nature itself, just as the fancy stimulated by the story creates it for the reader. Nor have the protagonists in a film the bodily presence and actuality of the human figures in the drama. They are living shadows. They speak not, they are not, they merely were—and were precisely as you see them—and that is narrative. The film possesses a technique of recollection, of psychological suggestion, a mastery of detail in men and in things, from which the novelist, though scarcely the dramatist, might learn much. That the Russians, who have never been great dramatists, are supreme in this field, rests, without any doubt in my mind, upon their narrative skill.
As an author I have not as yet had much luck with the films. Buddenbrooks2 has been filmed, but hardly to the satisfaction of the friends of that book. Instead of narrating, only narrating, and letting the characters speak for themselves, what has been made of it is a poorish play of merchant life, in which not much remains of the book save the names. A very good Berlin producer did think for a while of filming The Magic Mountain; which is not surprising, for a bold treatment of it might have produced a wonderful spectacle, a fantastic cyclopaedia, with a hundred digressions into all points of the compass: visions of all the worlds of nature, sport, research, medicine, politics, all grouped round an epic core. What might not have been made simply of the chapter “Snow,” with its Mediterranean dream poem of humanity! But it is not to be. Such a production made too great material and intellectual demands. Royal Highness is under consideration. It is simple and should succeed; there are good roles, including that always irresistible one of a good dog; and though the subject-matter might be reminiscent of Alt Heidelberg, with good settings and well-chosen actors it should be a pleasing piece and very likely a successful one.
From Past Masters, by Thomas Mann, translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter. Published 1933 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
1.Directed by King Vidor (1925), starring John Gilbert. One of MGM’s most successful movies at the box office.
2.Buddenbrooks has been filmed twice: (1923) directed by Gerhard Lamprecht and (1959) directed by Alfred Weidenrnann. Other Mann works that have been filmed include: Confessions of Felix Krull (1958), Tonio Kroger (1968) and Death in Venice (1970).