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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 52.4: Michael Cowan
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Afterthoughts on "Absolute Advertising: Walter Ruttmann and the Weimar Advertising Film”

Michael Cowan, McGill University

My interest in advertising film grew out of a discovery made several years ago while working on a book on rhythm in German modernism, when I found that ideas about rhythm and spectatorship came to play a key role in advertising practice and theory in the mid-1920s. One thing led to another, and it soon became clear that here was a different avenue for thinking about the work of experimental filmmakers such as Walter Ruttmann, Guido Seeber and Oskar Fischinger: about their neglected advertising films, but more generally about the epistemological relations between experimental film and the emerging models of subjectivity and attention in the work science and advertising psychology of the interwar period.

In the time since I began working on Ruttmann's advertisements, I have been thinking more about two related paths. One involves an examination of Ruttmann's (and more generally the avant-garde’s) role within the shifting political cultures from the Weimar Republic to Nazism; if abstract film did resonate with other institutional forms of expertise, then how might this help us to rethink the long-debated question concerning the compatibility (or incompatibility) of experimental aesthetics with totalitarian politics? The other path examines the visual culture of interwar advertising film more generally: its "screen cultures”; its relation to other forms of moving images (e.g. electric signage and shop-window automatons); its remediation of graphic traditions (such as caricature and silhouette) – and the modes of spectatorship that all of these forms of advertising helped to institute. These two questions are obviously related. The advertising experts of the 1920s thought and wrote extensively about how to make aesthetics more amenable to the goals of (economic and psychological) governance and efficiency. Conversely, for much of the avant-garde, advertising offered an obvious forum for lending art social, cultural or practical relevance.

Weimar film studies in North America have long been dominated by questions of representation, and it’s easy to understand why this paradigm has proven so productive in an intellectual milieu shaped by area studies. The film of the Weimar Republic – Germany’s first and crisis-laden experiment with democratic pluralism – gave unprecedented visibility to German Jews, to emancipated women, to gay and lesbian desire, and to many other forms of identity and subjectivity that would later be persecuted under Nazism. At the same time, at least since Kracauer’s analysis of the "procession of tyrants” populating Weimar film, scholars have also explored the latent and not-so-latent representations of darker tendencies: of authoritarianism, war trauma, anti-Semitism and the racial thought pervading European colonialism. Approaching Weimar films as representations of broader cultural tendencies, such readings provide a powerful way to make sense of narrative features, documentaries and, within certain parameters, experimental film. (While not "representational” in any straightforward sense, the latter could nonetheless reside well among those forms of artistic expression that Nazism would try to eradicate.)

But for all that representational readings have taught us, there is still much to learn about the many ways in which the Weimar period understood film as a medium: its interactions with spectatorial sensation and subjectivity; its position within broader ensembles of visual culture; its perceived relations with other key media of the period; its potential roles as an agent of social organization and governance; its uses beyond the entertainment cinema, etc. Part of this task involves excavating not only lesser-known feature films, but above all other types of film – i.e. the "orphans” of Weimar cinema, its filmic advertisements, its educational and scientific films, and a host of other curiosities such as the "interactive” films (instructional films, etc.) frequently screened in cinemas and other venues. Many if not most of these films are lost today. But one can explore – and many scholars are exploring – the myriad forms of film culture surrounding their existence: cine-clubs, educational programming, scientific committees, film archives and the like.[1] This kind of work requires extensive access to archives, which many of us – scholars working in North America with limited time abroad or limited resources – may or may not possess. But as film and humanities scholars, we can also examine some of the surprising intellectual connections (i.e. the epistemological relations mentioned above) that allowed film – which even during this period of narrative integration can hardly be reduced to the psychological mechanisms of narrative pleasure – to be conceived in different ways. Some of these will overlap with questions of area studies, but we might also ask what other paths are possible today in light of new and emerging fields of interest in film and media studies (e.g. animation, "expanded cinema,” media archeology, etc.). Among other things, the Weimar period was marked by an astounding range of experimentation not only with film’s aesthetics, but also with its technological parameters and institutional uses. Advertising film provides one framework within which to explore such questions, but there are many other possibilities. Much of the most innovative scholarship in recent years has involved approaching film through unconventional sources such as medical journals, educational literature and colonial records. Combining such work, there may well be a "new history” of Weimar cinema yet to be written in English: one that would not ignore canonical directors and films, but would approach them with a broad media-historical sensibility to ask what they can tell us about how moving images were conceived, imagined and experienced during the interwar period.

[1] A good example can be found in the three-volume publication Geschichte des dokumentarischen Films in Deutschland (2005), which goes far beyond a study of "documentary” in a traditional sense to include in-depth discussions of a variety of non-fictional forms and institutional contexts, developments in film technology, paracinematic phenomena and other aspects of film culture from the 1890s to the Second World War.

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