Kafka Goes to the Movies 
by Hanns Zischler, translated by Susan Gillespie.
Chicago, 143 pp., £21, January 2003, 0 226 98671 3
Show More
Show More

His name was Franz Kafka, and he quite often went to the movies. Some such statement constitutes both the basis of Kafka Goes to the Movies and its primary impediment: the rock it has to roll up the hill. According to Max Brod, his lifelong friend and first editor and biographer, Kafka loved the movies; at times, Brod reported, he would talk about little else. For the most part, however, Kafka abstained from written commentary on the cinema. To be sure, there are scattered remarks in diaries and letters from the period 1908-13. But that’s about it. The challenge, for Hanns Zischler, is how to say no more than that Kafka quite often went to the movies, and make it worth saying.

Zischler seems to have decided to pin his hopes on biography. That Kafka quite often went to the movies is of interest if movie-going can be shown to have extended significantly the repertoire of behaviour and reflection available to a young would-be author in Prague in the years before the First World War. It might, for example, alter our sense of the state of the family romance to know that Kafka’s youngest sister, Ottla, was, as Zischler puts it, his ‘real cinematic companion and secret "movie queen"’. But Zischler’s primary hypothesis is that Kafka’s cinema-going helped to maintain the intricate system of displacements and mediations which was his courtship of Felice Bauer.

Kafka first met Bauer, who worked for a Berlin manufacturer of dictaphones, at Max Brod’s on 13 August 1912. His first impressions, recorded a week later, were nothing if not severe. ‘Bony, empty face, which wore its emptiness openly . . . Almost broken nose. Blonde, rather stiff, unalluring hair, strong chin.’ Kafka’s writerliness is evident, here, both in the unflinching adherence to physical fact, and in the recognition that even the most physical of facts cannot escape meaning (the empty face that intends its emptiness), and may contain or hint at a virtual existence (the unscathed nose which bears witness to the possibility of accident or assault). But the act of severity which announces writerliness is also its dissolution. Its double edge folds neatly up into the choice of a mate. ‘While I was sitting down, I saw her at close quarters for the first time, when I sat, I had already reached an unshakeable judgment’ (‘ein unerschütterliches Urteil’).

If the judgment itself remained unshakeable, at least for a while, everything around it immediately began to shake from the recoil. Productively, at first. An entry for 23 September 1912 records the completion the previous night of a story entitled ‘The Judgment’; and the author’s ‘trembling entrance’ (‘zitternde Eintreten’) into his sisters’ room the next morning to read it to them. Literature’s double edge keeps it in a tremble, forever awaiting confirmation (however fast the author might have sat down at his desk the evening before). At this point, Kafka evidently hoped that his new commitment to Felice would strengthen his old commitment to literature; that both would prove unshakeable, and the cause of much shaking. He trembles with ‘intolerable excitement’ while expecting letters from Felice, and then with joy once they have arrived. A long letter makes him wonder what he has done to deserve such bounty. ‘There is no choice but to tremble and read it over and over again.’ The very thought of communication by phone – of waiting to be put through, of eventually being summoned and rushing ‘all of a tremble’ (‘dass alles zittert’) to the apparatus – is enough to rule out such immediacy.

Agitation has a tendency to overspread its source. Kafka began to worry that Felice herself might recoil from so much recoiling: ‘it is objectionable to keep laying myself bare before you without knowing whether or not you tremble inside from it in horror, impatience or boredom.’ His desperate pleas for calm (‘das Gefühl der Ruhe’) make it clear that he had lost faith in the proposed reconciliation of literature with marriage. The correspondence with Felice had begun at the end of September 1912. Two months later, he turned down an invitation to spend Christmas with her in Berlin. The first thing to get shaken in this relationship, it seems, was one party’s desire to see the other again. The ‘madness of so many letters’ (more than 500, over a period of five years) became the relationship.

A reference to cinema in a letter written at the end of September 1912 beautifully renders the physical and moral sensation of being moved, not to the very depths, but pervasively, by a force which suffuses rather than penetrates because it rests at a certain distance. ‘Only I am trembling all over [‘nur zittere ich überall’], the way the light made the screen tremble [‘zum Zittern brachte’] in the earliest days of cinematography, if you remember that.’ In those (already mythical) earliest days of cinematography, the spectacle on offer was as much that of the machine itself as of the images projected. Advertisements for the first shows invariably depict a shaft of light flung over darkened heads at a distant screen, suffusing it with image, with visibility. The force Kafka had in mind, in this instance, was that represented by his commitment both to literature and to Felice. It is as though he wanted to draw the vocabulary of creative astonishment across from writing, where it had long been active, into courtship. There was, however, a problem with this euphoria. The time it took was a good deal longer than the time between sitting and being seated. Kafka did not send the note written in September 1912 until May 1913, and then only as an enclosure. The note had to be reclassified as a found object before he could bring himself to despatch it. ‘Today I came across this old letter of mine, from happier, unhappier days. What do you think of it? Answer as you would have answered then.’

Zischler quotes the remark about the screen without comment. He is more forthcoming on the subject of the ‘random example’ that Kafka flourished in a letter of 4/5 March 1913 to illustrate the effect his depression had on his ‘judgment of people and of the world in general’. The example turns on a difference between cinema and theatre. In 1910, in Berlin, Kafka had seen Albert Bassermann as Hamlet. He was so gripped by the performance, he told Brod, that he almost became for its duration another person. Now, in March 1913, he tells Felice that he has been similarly moved by the sight of Bassermann’s face on a poster advertising a film. ‘Well, I said to myself, B. has lent himself, at any rate in this film, to something unworthy of him. Nevertheless, he has lived through the film, carried the excitements of the plot in his heart from beginning to end, and whatever a man of such calibre has experienced is unconditionally lovable.’

Cinema, however, does not lend itself, as the Bassermann Hamlet had done, to the mutual confirmation, face to face, of performer and audience. In the cinema, unlike the theatre, performer and audience never coincide; for one party to be present, the other must be absent. The medium’s founding principle was a missed encounter. So Kafka has another thought about Bassermann:

This is how I imagine the situation: the satisfaction of acting is over; the film is made; B. himself can no longer influence it in any way; he need not even realise that he had allowed himself to be taken advantage of, and yet, when watching himself in the film, he may become aware of the utter futility of exerting all his considerable powers and – I am not exaggerating my sense of compassion – he grows older, weaker, gets pushed aside in his armchair and vanishes somewhere into the mists of time.

Kafka quickly dismisses the thought as the product of his own sense of futility. ‘Even after the completion of the film Bassermann goes home as Bassermann, and no one else.’ Dismissal, however, scarcely diminishes its force. It is a thought about the difference between cinema and theatre, and a thought about the way relationships sometimes go wrong. Kafka became a virtuoso of the missed encounter, and its most persevering and most incisive literary exponent. Film may have been in some sense too close to the bone.

On 6 November 1913, Kafka told Felice that he thought they should meet soon, even though a meeting would accomplish little. He enclosed in the letter a note written while on holiday at Desenzano, on Lake Garda, in September: ‘I don’t keep a diary at all, I wouldn’t know what for; nothing happens to me to stir my inmost self. This applies even if I weep, as I did yesterday in a cinematographic theatre in Verona. I am capable of enjoying human relationships, but not of experiencing them.’ Again, the note cannot be sent until it has been reclassified as a found object. Its function, like that of the Bassermann example, is to explore the relationship between performer and audience. In cinema, the viewer is to a compelling degree both present at, and absent from, the scene which stirs her or his ‘inmost self’. A film can offer coexistence without encounter. To that extent, it resembles a letter. ‘Presence is irrefutable,’ Kafka once told Felice, in anticipation of a meeting. Letters, he had already acknowledged, ‘can’t create a presence’: only a mixture of presence and absence which ‘becomes unbearable’. By the time he got round to posting the note about Verona, he had met Grete Bloch, Felice’s emissary to Prague. Soon he was to begin the ‘madness of so many letters’ with her, too. The notes about cinema in the letters to Felice are intriguing on account of their content, and of their peculiar status: as interruption, random example, or found object. They are one of the ways Kafka found to evade Felice in approaching her.

Zischler’s method throughout Kafka Goes to the Movies is to develop his argument by means of extensive quotation both from the diaries and letters and from a wide range of additional material, some of it fascinating. He has shown remarkable enterprise and tenacity in tracking down prints of the films Kafka saw, or, where these are no longer extant, written descriptions. The illustrations he has assembled are in themselves something to treasure. Enthusiasts for Kafka and for early cinema alike will remain in his debt. He has little to offer, however, by way of sustained analysis.

He is at his most effective when the material is relatively abundant, and more or less self-explanatory. He provides a gripping account of the last bachelor journey Kafka and Brod took together, through Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France, in the summer of 1911 (Brod became engaged to Else Taussig the following year). The material, in this case, is abundant: two journals, essays by Brod and the draft of a collaborative novel to be called Richard and Samuel. Zischler shows that cinema had become, for these two young men at least, an important part of what it meant to experience the wider world. Experiencing the wider world involved the ambiguous pursuit of a young woman they had met on a train. Brod’s insistence that during a stopover in Munich the young woman should accompany them on a tour of the city reminded Kafka of a recent Danish film, The White Slave Girl, in which, ‘just outside the railway station, in the dark, the innocent heroine is hustled into an automobile by strange men and taken away.’ Zischler has seen The White Slave Girl, and is able to report that Kafka misremembered the scene.

That Kafka wept at the movies does not mean, of course, that he took them seriously. Zischler believes that he did not. In early 1911, on business in the northern Bohemian cities of Friedland and Reichenberg, Kafka derived some entertainment from an apparatus known as the Kaiser Panorama. In the Panorama, one got to see photographs of scenes of varying exoticism through stereoscopic glasses. ‘The scenes more alive than in the cinematograph,’ he noted in his journal, ‘because they allow the eye the stillness of reality. The cinematograph lends the observed objects the agitation of their movement, the stillness of the gaze seems more important.’ Kafka later expanded on this objection to Gustav Janouch. ‘The cinema,’ he told Janouch, ‘disturbs perception [‘das Schauen’]. The rapidity of movements and the rapid change of images compels the viewer to engage in a constant surfeit of viewing [‘Überschauen’].’ Zischler regards the thoughts provoked by Kafka’s experience in the Kaiser Panorama as an ‘Archimedean point’ in his ‘rejection of cinematography’.

They weren’t, evidently, Archimedean enough to stop him going to the movies. It could be that what we have in the diaries is not a rejection of cinema, but the establishment of a new and idiosyncratic method of viewing. Kafka appears to have viewed film against rather than with the plot. Concentration on a particular scene or effect enabled him to avoid surfeit, to reinstate the stillness of the gaze. A white horse and puffs of smoke were what he remembered from a pulsating celebration of the life and glorious death of the German nationalist hero Theodor Körner. Similarly, his account of Slaves of Gold, a Gaumont western featuring a millionaire on a mission, remains oblivious to plot, but seeks out gesture. ‘Mustn’t forget him. The calmness, the slow movement, conscious of its goal, a faster step when necessary, a shrug of the shoulder. Rich, spoiled, lulled to sleep, but how he springs up like a servant and searches the room into which he was locked in the forest tavern.’

All this matters, or might matter, because cinema as a medium was in transition at the time when Kafka attended most assiduously, in the years between 1908 and 1913. The aim of early films such as the ‘actualities’ produced by the Lumière brothers from 1895 was to show rather than to tell. These actualities comprised the totality of whatever took place in front of a camera which did not move, in the fifty seconds or so before the film ran out. Visibility itself was the point, regardless of the narrative or dramatic interest of that which had been made visible. Writing to his family from Rome in September 1907, Freud reported himself ‘spellbound’ by the open-air projection of films on the Piazza Colonna. He didn’t say what the films were about, and his indifference to their content has usually been understood as proof that as late as 1907 the point of cinema still lay in the exhibition of movement.

Kafka did want to know what films were about. On 13 March 1913, he could not get started on a letter to Felice because he had to debrief Ottla. ‘My sister reported on the showing or rather I asked her about it, for, even if I myself seldom go to the cintematograph theatre, nevertheless I usually know almost all the weekly programmes of the cinematographs by heart.’ Cinema was by that time well advanced in the process of remaking itself as a narrative art: the precondition, it was felt, for its emergence as a mass medium. Between 1908 and 1913, D.W. Griffith made around 450 films for Biograph, patiently refining the techniques which were to sustain the first American epics, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). In the Biograph films, one can already see the faint outline of the classical Hollywood continuity system. At first, the term ‘continuity’ designated any kind of effort to smooth the flow of the narrative. It came to refer to a specific set of guidelines for cutting shots together, whether by scene dissection or by montage. The years between 1908 and 1913 were also immensely productive for European (though not for British) cinema; the films Kafka saw were French, German, Italian and Danish. Some film historians argue that prewar European cinema, with its reliance on long takes and staging in depth, should be understood as an alternative to Hollywood’s increasingly rapid-fire cut-and-paste. It would be nice to think that one of the films Kafka saw on 20 November 1913 was, as Zischler proposes, Léonce Perret’s L’Enfant de Paris (1913), which made intricate use of staging in depth; unfortunately, the evidence he himself has supplied (a poster advertising the programme, a substantial review) demonstrates that the film shown was not in fact L’Enfant de Paris, but a subsequent vehicle for its child-star, Suzanne Privat. What one can say is that films like L’Enfant de Paris sought to incorporate the stillness of the gaze into narrative art, rather than to dismember and reconfigure it.

If Zischler’s interest in the history of cinema is minimal, it nonetheless overshadows his interest in the history of literature. He has little but contempt for those, beginning with Max Brod, who have regarded Kafka’s fiction as in some measure ‘cinematic’. Comparison with particular films, or styles of film-making, is indeed tempting. Karl Rossman, in The Man who Disappeared, escaping from the police, skids on one leg round a corner in a way that seems thoroughly Chaplinesque, and could just conceivably have been meant as such. Kafka had six chapters of the novel in draft by December 1912, and resumed work on it in autumn 1914; Chaplin’s tramp took shape in Kid Auto Races at Venice, a Keystone comedy released on 7 February 1914. The Man who Disappeared would bear comparison, as a dream of America, with the wildly inventive one and two-reelers Chaplin shot during and immediately after the war (before he, too, conceded that film had become a narrative art). But Kafka, as Zischler is correct to insist, did not want to write like the movies.

All this needs to be kept in proportion. When a Yiddish theatrical group from the Ukraine visited Prague in 1910 and 1911, Kafka was often in the audience; indeed, he made friends, much to his father’s irritation, with one of the actors, Yitzhak Löwy. Accounts of the performances the group gave and synopses of the plays performed account for more than 100 pages in the diaries. His name was Franz Kafka, and he often went to the theatre (and quite often, for that matter, to concerts, exhibitions, lectures). The visual art which looms largest both in the correspondence with Felice and in The Man who Disappeared is photography, not cinema. Zischler has moved his rock more than a few feet up the hill. But it remains a pretty small rock.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences