The concept of the film essay is almost seventy years old. The first person to elaborate on the concept was avant-garde filmmaker Hans Richter, who in 1940, published an essay in the Swiss-German newspaper Basler Nationalzeitung. Before reading excerpts from Richter's essay entitled "Der Filmessay: eine neue Form des Dokumentarfilms" read first what film studies professor Nora Alter has to say about the essay and its relationship to history and cinema

An Excerpt from: Nora M. Alter's "Memory Essays." Stuff It: The Video Essay in the Digital Age. Ed. Ursula Biemann. Zurich: Edition Voldemeer. 2003. 12-23.

What is an essay? Let me briefly present some formulations on the philosophical-literary form. "To essay" means "to assay," "to weigh," as well as "to attempt.," suggesting an open-ended, evaluative search. But this objective search is haunted and constrained by the presence of individual subjectivity. (The verb is also linked via the Latin ex-agere to agens, the word and problem of human agency.) Current use of the word essay as a distinct genre can be traced to the sixteenth-century social critic and philosopher Montaigne, whose Essais (1580) were to exert a deep influence on the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and on a variety of critics in this tradition (e.g., De Sade, Leopardi, Emerson, Nietzsche, Lukacs, Adorno, Benjamin, Barthes). By "essay," Montaigne meant the testing of ideas, himself, and society. It was a wide-ranging form of cognitive preambulation that reflected upon fundamental questions of life and human frailty, tensions and overlaps between "fact" and "fiction," and their consequences for social order and disorder. Since Montaigne, the essay has retained some of its distinguishing features. Its weapons are humor, irony, satire, paradox; its atmosphere is contradition and the collision of opposites.

In his 1910 "letter" to Leo Popper entitled "On the Nature and Form of the Essay," Georg Lukacs seeks to legitimate the written essay, which he suggests is "criticism as a form of art."1 He compares the essay to other forms of literature using the metaphor of "ultra-violet rays" that are refreacted through the literary prism.2 Lukacs characterizes the essay as both "accidental" and "necessary,"3 a description echoed years later by Adorno in his writings on the essay, where he extolls the characteristics of "luck," "play," and "irrationality."4 For both Lukacs and Adorno, the essay is fragmentary, wandering, and does not seek to advance truth claims--as would, for instance, the documentary genre in the case of film. Lukacs concludes that the essay is both a work of art, due to what he calls its autonomous, "sovereign: status, and a judgement. Yet, for Lukacs the essential, value-determining thing about an essay is "not the verdict...but the process of judging."5

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Adorno takes up where Lukacs left off and develops further the notion of the essay as a "critique of system" that problematizes the "absolute privilege of method."6 Thought, he argues, "does not progress in a single direction; instead, the moments oare interwoven as in a carpet. The fruitlessness of the thoughts depends on the density of the texture. The thinker does not actually think but rather makes himself an arena for intellectual experience without unraveling it."7 Furthermore, for Adorno the essay is the consummate site for critique and its only relation to art is that it is in constant pursuit of new forms of presentation. One such innovation has been made by a group of film and video makers who have sought to produce the audiovisual equivalent of the written genre--which critics such as Edward Small have referred to as "direct theory."8 Small's starting point is the premise that written film theory, while well developed, is fundamentally flawed since words and written texts are by their very nature inadequate to theorize the constituents of a medium that is audio-visual by its very nature. In other words, parallel to August Wilhelm von Schlegel's declaration that a theory about the novel should be a novel, Small believes that a theory of film should be a film. To this end, he proposes that "certain kinds of film and video works constitute a mode of theory, theory direct, without the mediation of a separate semiotic system."9 Small extends his observations to most experimental avant-garde productions., whereas I would link mine specifically to those productions that are essayistic in nature and that take critique as the fundamental force. To quote Adorno once again, the essay is "the critical form par excellence; as immanent critique of intellectual constructions, as a confrontation of what they are with their concept, it is critique of ideology."10

[...]

Let us recall that the film essay emerged during a period of historical crisis. The genre was first conceptualized in April 1940 by avant-garde filmmaker Hans Richter. The latter was at the time in exile in Basel, though about to be deported back to Germany. Under these conditions, Richter wrote a short essay entitled "Der Filmessay: eine neue Form des Dokumentarfilms" (The Film Essay: A New Form of Documentary Film).13 The pioneering text proposes a new genre of film that enables the filmmaker to make the "invisible" world of thoughts and ideas visible on the screen. Unlike the documentary film that presents facts and information, the essay film produces complex thought--reflections that are not necessarily bound to reality, but can also be contradictory, irrational, and

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fantastic. The essay film, the author argues, allows the filmmaker to transgress the rules and parameters of the traditional documentary practice, granting the imagination with all its artistic potentiality free reign. Page 14

Excerpts from Hans Richter's essay "The Film Essay: A New Form of Documentary Film." Schreiben Bilder Sprechen: Texte zum essayistischen Film. Eds. Christa Blümlinger and Constatin Wuldd. Wien: Sonderzahl, 1992. 195-198. Translation by Richard Langston.

 

It is not so long ago that one recognized in general that the picture postcard is not the ideal for the documentary film. In many hearts, minds, and cameras though it lives on today (albeit secretly). And even if it breaks through on occasion, against the will of the documentarist who long ago swore off the false documentary, then we see on the screen those castles in the moonlight, romantic views, idealized shots, and rather unreal people.

If we look away from these bad habits that the documentary film still hauls around to the detriment of its reputation, then the genre presents possibilities that are at least as interesting as those of the full feature film. To investigate them is especially remunerative today because they are becoming more relevant each and every day.

The American Flaherty has shown the way forward with his powerful film epics (Nanook of the North and Man of Aran. Through the simple rendering of facts he has represented the enormous human problem of the human battle against nature: against cold, hunger, and the sea. His work has proffered theoretical content and not just a beautiful view (i.e., picture postcard) and has captivated audiences around the world with this brilliant solution of theoretical content.

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The task today for the documentary film: shaping theoretical content into a more relevant and modified form.

[...]

Films about landscapes and the customs of a people, winter sports and summer hikes, how a gear is made or how paint is made from tar, or even how an embryo develops can be illustrated convincingly through an exact rendering or chronological sequencing of all visual stages of development. Indeed, in order to be intelligible they really demand an exact rendering in a simple chronological sequence.

But there is another catagory, for which this method is not useful. Already with a conceptual formulation like "the function of the stock exchange is that of a market" the precise representation of all the discernible stages of a stock exchange in chronological order no longer is adequate.This is because the function of the representable object, in this case the stock exchange, is in principle different from the function of a machine. The functioning of a machine can be read off from A to Z by the machine itself. In order to make intelligible however the functioning of a stock exchange, other things must be referenced: the economy, the needs of the public, the laws of the market, supply and demand, etc. In other words, one can no longer rely the simple documentary film that simply shoots an object to be represented. Rather, one must try to render, with whatever means available, the idea

 

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of the thing. One must try to engage the idea that one has of "stock exchange as market."

In this respect, the documentary film is given the task of making visible theoretical ideas. Even that which is itself not visible must be made visible.The acted scene like simple represented fact are arguments within an argumentation that takes as its goal the making generally intelligble problems, thoughts, even ideas. For this reason, I find the designation essay appropriate for this form of film. Even in the realm of literature the "essay" refers to the treatment of difficult topics in a generally accessible form.

The "stock exchange as market" is comparatively speaking a simple topic much like those that the English postal ministry posed: "the meaning of radio within our current civilization." More difficult is the treatment of topics like, for example, "The United States of Europe," and even more difficult a task like "freedom as a goal of social development." Naturally, these films would have much more simple titles for the movie theater but such formulations do appear today. They are without a doubt interesting and worthy of representation--but are they representable? Are they capable of being represented such that they encourage an audience, saturated and exclusively entertained by the cinema of entertainment, to come along, think along, and feel with it?

A few films in recent years provide a positive answer to this question and suggest the possibility of development for this new species of film: the work of the English documentarists Cavalcanti, Wright, Grierson (that "want to show the one half of the world how the other works, thinks, feels, lives")--the French group connected to Brunius (who extols so impressively and intelligently the individual's right to happiness in his Film Violons d'Ingres, which was shown at the New York World's Fair),--the Belgian group connected to Storck (L'histoire de l'ancienne Belgique),--like my own (Inflation, Stock Exchange).

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As different as these works are, all nevertheless strive toward the same goal: the shaping of ideas on the screen.

In its effort to make visible the the invisible world of imaginations, thoughts, and ideas the essayistic film can tap into an incomparably larger reservoir of expressive means than the pure documentary film. One is not bound in the film essay to the representation of external appearances or to a chronological sequence. On the contrary, one must pull together the material for view from everywhere and for this reason one can jump throughout space and time: for example from the objective representation to the fantastic allegory and from here to an acted out scene. One can represent dead or living, artificial or natural things. Using everything that exists and that allows to be invented--just as long as it can serve as an argument for the visualization of a basic idea. With this abundance of means even "dry" thoughts and"difficult" ideas assume a color and entertaining quality that an audience requires in order to enjoy the content.

New and substantial artistic possibilities have been initiated for the documentary film and it appears to me that we cannot rule out the fact that such tasks could attract some of the young people in film who today are gravitating toward the blinding light and the operations of the feature film. Perhaps they will vacillate whether it would not be more profitable in artistic circumstances to treat the stuff of a smart documentary film than to participate in just any old conventional and perhaps even arch-stupid feature film. [...] Even the vacillation would be profitable, for the image of people vacillating would perhaps draw attention to the great possibilities of the art of film: intervening creatively in the ideal world of our time. And would that not be a goal, "to wish for that more fervently than anything"?

First printed in: Baseler Nationalzeitung (Beilage), 25.4.1940.

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Knowing what you know know about the film essay, why not take a look at one or two or three? The following list of film essays can be found in the MRC. Films one through four are by directors mentioned in Richter's essay (1940). Films five through nine are discussed in the volume Stuff It (2003) in which Alter's essay appears. And films ten and eleven are by authors who contributed to the volume Schreiben Bilder Sprechen in which Richter's essay appears.

1. Robert Flaherty. Man of Aran. 1934. 76 min. (MRC 65-V2912)

2. Robert Flaherty. Nanook of the North. 1922. 69 min. (MRC 65- DVD816)

3. Alberto Cavalcanti and John Grierson. Benjamin Britten. 1935. 12 min. (MRC 65-V5695)

4. Alberto Cavalcanti. England in the Thirties. 1934. 60 mins. (MRC 65-V5697)

5. Harun Farocki. How to Live in the Federal Republic of Germany. 1989. 83 min. (65-V9262)

6. Richard Fung. Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians. 1984. 57 min. (MRC 65-V4248)

7. Isaac Julien. Looking for Langston. 1989. 45 min. (MRC 65-V6209)

8. Chris Marker. Sans Soleil. 1982. 100 min. (MRC 65-V4256)

9. Walid Ra'ad. Missing Lebanese Wars. 1996. 6 min. (MRC 65-V6048)

10. Alexandre Astruc. Sartre par lui-même. 1984. 102 min. (MRC 65-V2063)

11. Alexander Kluge et al. Germany in Autumn. 1978. 123 min. (MRC 65-V6703)

 

Notes to Nora Alter's Essay  

1. Georg Lukacs, "On the Nature and Form of the Essay: A Letter to Leo Popper [1910]," Soul and Form (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1978), p.2.

2. Ibid., p. 7.

3. Idib., p. 9.

4. Theodor W. Adorno, "The Essay as Form [1954-58]," Notes to Literature, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 3-23.

5. Georg Lukacs, "On the Nature and Form of the Essay," p. 18.

6. Theodor W. Adorno, "The Essay as Form," p. 9.

7. Ibid., p. 13. Here we need to only recall the audiovisual density of recent productions by Jean-Luc Godard such as Allemagne 90 neuf zéro or Histoire(s) du cinéma.

8. Edward S. Small, Direct Theory: Experimental Film/Audio as Major Genre (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994).

9. Ibid., p. 11.

10. Theodor W. Adorno, "The Essay as Form," p. 20.

[...]

13. Hans Richter, "Der Filmessay: eine neue Form des Dokumentarfilms [1940]," in Christa Blümlinger / Constatin Wuldd (eds.), Schreiben Bilder Sprechen: Texte zum essayistischen Film (Wien: Sonderzahl, 1992), pp. 195-198.

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