On the Berlin Film and Photo Exhibition

Siegfried Kracauer

On Yesterday’s Border (1932)

Aus: The Past's Threshold. Essays on Photography, S. 47 – 54

A permanent film and photo exhibition has been opened in a complex of shops in Joachimsthaler Street. It brings together material that has never been shown before in such a comprehensive way. Documents, pictures and test samples are brought together here, reaching from the very beginnings of photography and film to the immediate present. They provide an almost seamless overview of a development in which we have so fully participated that we have up to now been unable to tell it apart from ourselves. Only with this collection does the unconscious life that we have been carrying in ourselves become open and stand there facing us as something strange. And in scrutinising the collection, we recognise, not without a shudder, how the present in parts sinks back into the past and how the past constantly haunts the present. 


The exhibition rooms are reminiscent of market stalls. All the walls are plastered from top to bottom with photos, and in the gaps between them gaudy street posters stand out now and again. Further factors contribute to awakening the impression of fairground magic. Business goes on late into the night; in one of the rooms that is fitted out as one of the old suburban cinemas, forgotten and new films are shown; the shop window decoration is like a barrel organ melody made visible; the entry price has been kept so low that the open shop door does not have the effect of being an insurmountable barrier. In short, the street draws itself right into the show and its most hidden corners are still made for passers-by. Whether the improvisation that rules here is down to the intentions of the organizer or is simply thanks to the lack of means, it is in any case in perfect keeping with the subject that is to be presented. These pictures would suffocate in the bright, grand rooms of a museum not only because of their origin and their meaning but they would also be out of place in such surroundings because they have not yet become fully historical. Their place is on yesterday’s border where things can only be improvised. For in the dim light, contours are blurred for now and the murmur of lived experience echoes across into the newly deserted fields.


The photograph of a “Window” by Niépce    comes from the very beginnings. He was active between 1816 and 1830 and was a forerunner of Daguerre. The photograph was produced on specially prepared paper soaked in bitumen, and will not survive much longer. The picture is already showing cracks and tears, the form already threatens to dissolve again into the monotony of the background from which its creator had conjured it. For him it must have been a cause of incomparable joy to be able to capture all passing things. The subject is still clearly visible, with its mullion and transom and stone balustrade – a paltry window in any Parisian house. But it is precisely the triviality of the subject that makes visible the meaning of the first photographs. They were doubtless driven by the mission to sanctify the time-bound quality of a world that was dying. The emotion that overpowers the contemporary viewer looking at the yellowed sheet is to be understood from the fact that, in contrast to most modern photos, the desire is to save the transient and not to make it eternal to excess. The way that the photograph brings wonderfully to a standstill a fleeting phenomenon for the sake of the latter’s possible meaning, calls to mind the original vocation of photographic technology, where its users were for a long time content to pointlessly arrest the disappearance of inessential phenomena. 


The beginnings of film: a magic cylinder is rotated and ordinary scenes are generated out of small picture-books by rapidly flicking through them as if each were a pack of cards. “You Cannot Have Any Idea”, is the title of one of these little books and the claim is aimed at awakening the curiosity of fairground visitors. The Biofix machines of that period are still in use in Luna Park, making exaggerated promises to spendthrift lechers. An atmosphere of fairground show booths generally wafts around the beginnings of all of film production. It is the atmosphere in which the experiments of Max Skladanowsky thrive. Just as the rough-and-ready range of instruments used by this inventor already contains within it many possibilities that came to be worked out later, so too, the place at which this virgin area is broken into, is decisive for the future. The circumstances within which a new development emerges, always have an unforeseeable influence on its course. The first ever feature film, that was made by Skladanowsky, is called Die Rache der Frau Schulze and is a sort of street ballad whose images are accompanied by verses like these:

In the evening, when the clock strikes ten,
Mrs. Schultze wants to sleep in her den,
Her dear neighbour – is composing, 
Tinkling the piano and tromboning. 

It is telling that a woman circus rider plays the role of the avenger. All films of that time are illustrations of balladeers’ songs or they present as real sensationalist-type themes. The same forces that the engineers obey in developing the apparatus also bring themes to the films which live their life below official literature. They venture into the world of fairground spectacles, of primitively made – and primitively revelled in – adventure stories, of the ten penny dreadfuls found in the half-public areas in stationers’ shops and in backyards. But if this world is the first to be claimed for film, this means nothing other than that film fits in there. And indeed, film later enjoys its greatest triumphs as a creature of the street, as a conveyor of those indestructible, great themes that are presented more clearly in the show tent than they are in so-called literature and that give happiness to those unsullied by education and to the wise. The Chaplin routines that carry the indelible mark of film’s origins on their brow, are also the highpoint of film. 


Rache der Gefallenen. Sittengemälde in vier Akten a tired film carries this title, with the young Hans Albers featuring as the demonic seducer. His locks still wave in their full splendour, and his vanity still has the innocence of the heroes in novels read by servant girls. He now wants to be the folk figure that he perhaps really was in his early days, but he does not carry it off any more. The kitsch that he once played was of a popular nature that had meaning, while the nature that he now mimes in the interest of his popularity, is kitsch. A still photograph from the film is revealing. The (apparently already fallen) heroine is standing with a pistol in her hand in a richly appointed family drawing-room opposite an easel painting of the seducer in a tailcoat, and she harbours feelings that the text expresses as follows: “I once loved this man. Oh, how I hate him now! I must kill him, if it only be in a painting.” Instead of us noticing the agitation of the heroine that these words betray she, on the contrary, gives the impression of someone who is completely uninvolved. With the calm bearing of an elevated middle-class statue, she fills the middle of the room, and the calm which prevents her bosom from heaving fully corresponds to the indifference with which she holds the revolver. The murder instrument might as well be an empty match box that in the next moment is put down, so slight are its relations to the fallen woman and to the tails. But why these tragic words? The still on display shows that at the time it was made, the space that has since been won by film had not yet been opened up. The drawing-room is an adapted theatre set, the actors are theatre actors who are not supposed to speak, the furniture comes from the props room, and the camera is afraid to budge. As long as this proto-stage lasts, the people and things belong neither to the theatre, in which they can make themselves understood, nor yet to the world that can be mirrored on the screen. They are ghosts moving about in the mists of dawn, whose speech is not ours. Their gestures seem to write off their words as lies, their motionlessness is turmoil, and their pistols shoot into the void. When the camera wakes from its paralysis, they will give way.


Many films of past periods are only funny now. This is not where they want to be funny, but comes precisely at the culminating points of their seriousness. In the middle of a cemetery set, for example, which clearly forms the moving conclusion to a dramatic piece of action, linger a well-dressed man – who would do honour to any Courths-Mahler novel – and the kneeling Henny Porten. The commentary to the text in images runs:

“The most beautiful spot that on earth I have 
Is the grassy bank by my parents’ grave.”

There is not the slightest doubt that the mourning figure and the man standing somewhat to one side are badly shaken. Despite this, the image provokes laughter, and there are other, less crass scenes from outmoded society films that have also been consigned irretrievably to the comic register. This comes from a particular change that has happened with these images. Where they revealed to their first viewers essentially the content that was intended by them, they reveal to contemporary viewers the strange, just decayed milieu in which this content announced itself so naïvely, as if it were really rooted in that milieu. We see not only the man’s emotion but also his antiquated jacket and we are obliged to notice that Henny Porten’s mourning is taking place under the old-fashioned shape of her hat. The emphasis of the images has shifted, and the fashionable, external elements that had gone unnoticed originally have come to the fore like a secret alphabet. Instead of being moved by the pathos that exuded from the heroes in the period when they were contemporary, what alone strikes us about them now is the derisory contrast between their emotional claims and their obsolete appearance. Since film presents life as it appears more fully than any other art form, perhaps one of its tasks is to make us always aware of the questionable intertwining of fleeting time with feelings and passions which claim to last. The amusement aroused by film strips that have very recently become outdated has a sombre foundation indeed, for the sight of clothes and gestures with which we had very recently expressed ourselves, reminds us of the decline of any present whatsoever. And doubtless many sports events, tragedies etc. that we come across on the screen today, will soon have as comic an impact as the pair at the parents’ grave. Only a reality that has become fully historically conscious could be free of this comic effect, a reality that no longer stretches over into our own, and contents that are so very evident and overpowering that they even conquer their transient appearance. But where could they be found in the contemporary world?


The exhibition moves imperceptibly from the past to the present. A few stages in the development can, however, be made out. The letter of Max Mack to Albert Bassermann is exhibited in which the latter, who had until then resisted being filmed, is successfully implored to take a role in the film His Own Murderer. On show are images of the first set built in a studio. There are samples of films that introduced a new series or that at the technical level introduced a new stimulus. But despite these small signals, one does not find a threshold behind which would lie the past for once and for all, rather than glide, as it does, without intermediate steps into the present. The uncanny feeling that comes from not really knowing when modern dress supersedes the old, is further heightened by the awareness that through the technical progress the emptiness of films themselves grows. At the end of the exhibition, a new sound film camera has been assembled; its relation to Skladanowsky’s ungainly bioscope being akin to that of an elegant modern car to an early Ford. The films, however, that emerge from this sleek, wonderfully engineered apparatus, do not fulfil the expectations that could be attached to this bringing to perfection of the original model. On the contrary, the more the films become industrial products, the more hollow they sound, and the increase in the technical know-how invested in them seems to actually entail a lessening of their substance. They turn correct intentions on their head, they increase sensationalism and by so doing lower its level, they pass on rotten ideologies to the public and they obstruct their contents with the sets. It did not have to have been like this but this is how it has come to be. Moving through the exhibitions is exactly like sliding into an abyss. But one hope remains: the masterful apparatus that produces these trivial products. It cannot have been created in vain but must one day fulfil a function that really suits it.


It is worth adding that the enormous amount of material that will be made accessible to the public, step by step, was provided by countless people involved in making films. Directors opened their private archives, and extras supplied valuable old photos. The company organising the exhibition is contributing set percentages of the exhibition’s gross revenues to the social insurance funds of some film associations. The company also wants to found subsidiary exhibitions in other big cities of the country. Lectures of the most varied kinds and special events from specialised areas are planned in the main space itself.

Frankfurter Zeitung, 12th July 1932

  • Siegfried Kracauer
  • Medientheorie
  • Film
  • Geschichte der Fotografie
  • Fotografie

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Siegfried Kracauer

Siegfried Kracauer

geboren 1889 in Frankfurt am Main, studierte Architektur arbeitete in verschiedenen Architekturbüros, bevor er freier Mitarbeiter und 1924 Redakteur der Frankfurter Zeitung wurde, deren Feuilleton er ab 1930 in Berlin auch leitete. Im selben Jahr heiratete er Elisabeth Ehrenreich. Unmittelbar nach dem Reichstagsbrand 1933 flohen er und seine Frau nach Paris und nach Kriegsbeginn 1941 nach New York. Dort traf Kracauer die Entscheidung fortan ausschließlich in englischer Sprache zu schreiben. Siegfried Kracauer starb 1966 in New York an einer Lungenentzündung.

Weitere Texte von Siegfried Kracauer bei DIAPHANES
Philippe Despoix (Hg.), Siegfried Kracauer, ...: The Past's Threshold

Siegfried Kracauer, Philippe Despoix (Hg.), Maria Zinfert (Hg.)

The Past's Threshold
Essays on Photography

Übersetzt von Conor Joyce

Broschur, 128 Seiten

PDF, 128 Seiten

Siegfried Kracauer was a leading intellectual figure of the Weimar Republic and one of the foremost representatives of critical theory. Best known for a wealth of writings on sociology and film theory, his influence is felt in the work of many of the period’s preeminent thinkers, including his friends, the critic Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno, who once claimed he owed more to Kracauer than any other contemporary.

The volume brings together for the first time all of Kracauer’s essays on photography that he wrote between 1927 and 1933 as a journalist for the Frankfurter Zeitung, as well as an essay that appeared in the Magazine of Art after his exile in America, where he would spend the last twenty-five years of his life. The texts show Kracauer as a pioneering thinker of the photographic medium in addition to the important historian, and theorist, of film that he is acknowledged to have been. His writings here build a cohesive theory on the affinities between photography, memory and history.

With a foreword by Philippe Despoix offering insights into Kracauer’s theories and the historical context, and a Curriculum vitae in pictures, photographs from the Kracauer estate annotated by Maria Zinfert.