Campo santo, p.12
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       Campo Santo, p.12

           W. G. Sebald
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  I would suddenly see through one of the west windows a marvelous case of levitation. There, for an instant, the figure of my father in his wind-rippled white summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawling in midair, his limbs in a curiously casual attitude, his handsome, imperturbable features turned to the sky. Thrice, to the mighty heave-ho of his invisible tossers, he would fly up in this fashion, and the second time he would go higher than the first and then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin.

  Kafka Goes to the Movies

  Films, far more than books, have a way of disappearing not just from the market but from memory, never to be seen again. But one remembers some of them even decades later, and one of these rare exceptions, in my mind, is a ballad in black and white about two men neither of whom really knows where he is going. I saw it in a Munich cinema in May 1976, and afterward, moved as one easily is by such experiences, I walked home through the mild night to my one-room flat in the Olympiapark.

  Bruno Winter, I think, was the name of the man in dungarees, the character in this story directed by Wim Wenders who is on his way through the infinitely tedious region behind the front line of the western world of the time. Viewers see him going from place to place, all of them disfigured by panels of man-made materials. He stops off at cinemas where almost no one goes anymore. Bruno’s life on the outskirts of a blinkered society was meant as a tribute to the springtime of the movies, when the public gazed entranced at quivering strips of celluloid; it was both an obituary for a vanished form of entertainment and a look back at the years after the last war, when many of the more remote parts of the German provinces had visits from such entrepreneurs traveling around with movies. We ourselves, in W. on the northern borders of the Alps, could go to a weekly film show in the hall of the local inn, the Engelwirt, and see films like The Secret Agent, The Man in Grey, Gilda, and Geronimo, with Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth, Stewart Granger, Chief Thundercloud, and other stars of the past on screen.

  But that is not my subject here; I am concerned with the other man who races up in a Volkswagen at the beginning of Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit), when Bruno is shaving in the open air, and drives it intentionally (so much is instantly obvious) into the river by which Bruno has parked overnight. Bruno is not a little surprised. For a long moment, the Beetle soars through the air as if it had learned to fly. To this day I remember the sight. As far as I recollect, Robert Lander, the man at the wheel who rises from the ground in this spectacular manner, like his near namesake who was carried away by an umbrella, is a pediatrician or a psychologist, and after this unusual opening, which Wenders presents in matter-of-fact style, they travel together through the more remote regions of their native land having various adventures, of which I remember most clearly a motorbike ride along an empty road, a very beautiful and almost weightless sequence. Bruno is riding the bike, if I remember correctly; and Robert sits in the sidecar wearing the kind of sunglasses one used to have to put on when being X-rayed. But to come to the real point: it is this Robert (the actor’s real name is Hanns Zischler), shown in the film relishing the speed of the ride and the ever changing patterns of light and shade, who has just published a book about Franz Kafka and what can be discovered or conjectured about his interest in the art of the cinema, still very new in his time.*

  No author has had more written about him than Kafka. Thousands of books and articles about his character and work have accumulated within the comparatively short space of half a century. Anyone with even an approximate idea of the extent and parasitic nature of this proliferation of words may be forgiven for wondering whether any further additions to this already excessively long list of titles are needed. However, Kafka Goes to the Movies is in a category of its own. Unlike the general run of German critics, whose plodding studies regularly become a travesty of scholarship, and unlike the manufacturers of literary theory applying their astute minds to the difficulty of Kafka, Hanns Zischler confines himself to a restrained commentary which never tries to go beyond its particular subject. It is this restraint, keeping to the facts alone and refusing to indulge in attempts at elucidation, that we can now see, looking back, distinguishes the best of Kafka scholars. Today, if you pick up one of the many Kafka studies to have appeared since the 1950s, it is almost incredible to observe how much dust and mold have already accumulated on these secondary works, inspired as they are by the theories of existentialism, theology, psychoanalysis, structuralism, post-structuralism, reception aesthetics, or system criticism, and how unrewarding is the redundant verbiage on every page. Now and then, of course, you do find something different, for the conscientious and patient work of editors and factual commentators is in marked contrast to the chaff ground out in the mills of academia. To me at least—and I cannot claim to be entirely innocent of the fatal inclination to speculate about meanings—it seems increasingly that Malcolm Pasley, Klaus Wagenbach, Hartmut Binder, Walter Müller-Seidel, Christoph Stölzl, Anthony Northey, and Ritchie Robertson, all of whom have concentrated mainly on reconstructing a portrait of the author in his own time, have made a greater contribution to elucidating the texts than those exegetes who dig around in them unscrupulously and often shamelessly. And among the faithful advocates we may now count Zischler, who was working on a television film about Kafka in 1978 when he first came upon the notes on the cinema scattered through the diaries and books, some of them, as Zischler says, very curt and cryptic. He was then surprised to find how little scholars had to say about them. Zischler saw this odd lack of interest as the occasion for an investigation he has carried out in true detective spirit in the intervening years, in Berlin and Munich, Prague and Paris, Copenhagen and Verona, and he has now collected the results in a volume of surprising finds, unpretentiously written and exemplary in every way.

  Overwhelmed with visual stimulation as we are today, it is difficult for us to understand the fascination that movie images exerted in Kafka’s time on audiences ready to abandon themselves to the illusion of an art which in many respects was still primitive, and was considered inferior by the arbiters of good taste. But Zischler, perhaps because he has been in front of the camera lens himself, knows all about the curiously mingled sense of identification and alienation felt when—in the extreme case, but it is a frequent one in the cinema—you can see yourself die. To Kafka, who was always yearning for his own dissolution, to perish almost imperceptibly in fugitive images running inexorably away like life itself must have been like the temptation of Saint Anthony in the desert. According to his own account and those of others, his eyes more than once filled with tears at the sight of such scenes in the movie theater. Which scenes we do not know, but he may well have felt like Peter Altenberg, who resembled him in many ways and defended the cinema, an art despised by the “psychological clowns of literature,” with the following reminiscence, quoted by Zischler: “My tender fifteen-year-old girlfriend and I, a fifty-two-year-old, cried hot tears over the nature sketch Under the Starry Sky, in which a poor French canal boat–hauler pulls his dead fiancée upstream, slowly and with difficulty, through blooming fields.” Kafka would surely have shed tears, too, over the French boat hauler and his lifeless fiancée, for the picture would have suggested so much to him: the torment of a never ending labor like some mythical punishment, mankind out of place in natural surroundings, the story of an unhappy engagement, untimely death. “Dearest,” he writes to Felice about a photograph from which she looked at him with a melancholy expression, “pictures are beautiful, we cannot do without pictures, but they torment us too.”

bsp; We are so moved by photographic images because of the curious aura of another world that sometimes emanates from them. Kafka, as many of his diary notes show, could fix such pictures in the mental snapshots he took with his sympathetic but ice-cold eye. Of Frau Tschissik the Jewish actress, he makes a particular note about “her hair set in 2 waves and illuminated by the gaslight,” and a little later, in his description of the same woman, he comes to her cosmetics. “I usually hate the use of powder,” he writes, “but if this whiteness, like a veil clinging close to the skin and of a slightly cloudy, milky color is the effect of powder, then all women should powder themselves.” In passages like these and many others, where the observer (who stands a great distance away yet is consumed by longing) is absorbed in the individual, isolated aspects of a physicality beyond his reach, for instance the “faint white of the low neck of a blouse,” we may conjecture that the erotic aura of such pictures—snapshots taken, so to speak, without permission—is due to their proximity to death. For the very reason that looking at one’s fellow men with so pitiless a gaze is forbidden, one has to look again and again. The all-revealing, all-penetrating gaze is subject to compulsive repetition, always wanting to reassure itself that it really did see what it saw. Nothing is left but looking, an obsession in which real time is suspended while, as we sometimes feel in dreams, the dead, the living, and the still unborn come together on the same plane. When Kafka visits the Kaiser Panorama in Friedland on a business trip in the winter of 1911, and looks through the eyepiece into the depths of artificial space, he sees the city of Verona populated by people “like wax figures, their soles fixed to the ground on the sidewalk.” Two years later, he will be walking in those very streets and feeling as remote from everything living as the wax figures he saw in Friedland. The innermost mystery of secular metaphysics is this strange sensation of physical absence, something evoked by what might be called an overdeveloped gaze. Significantly enough, the customers coming out of the twilight of the nickelodeon, and going back into the street, always have to give themselves a little shake before they are fully in control of the bodies they had shed as they were absorbed in looking at the panorama.

  Kafka’s comments on photography suggest that he felt there was something fundamentally uncanny about this way of copying life. Friedrich Thieberger, for instance, remembers once meeting Kafka in the street when he himself had an unwieldy box for making photographic enlargements under his arm. Thieberger writes that Kafka asked, in surprise, “Taking photographs?” and added, “That’s really rather sinister.” Then, after a short pause, he continued, “And you enlarge them as well!” Kafka’s books too contain many indications of the vague horror he felt at the impending mutations of mankind as the age of technical reproduction opened, mutations in which he probably saw the imminent end of the autonomous individuality formed by the bourgeois culture. The freedom of movement of the heroes of his novels and stories, which is not great to begin with, steadily undergoes further restriction in the course of the action, while figures already called to life by an inscrutable series of laws take over, characters such as the court functionaries, the two idiotic assistants and the three lodgers in The Metamorphosis, executives and officials whose purely functional, amoral nature is obviously better suited to this new state of affairs. In the Romantic period the doppelgänger, which first aroused a fear of mechanical appliances, was still a haunting and exceptional phenomenon; now it is everywhere. The whole technique of photographic copying ultimately depends on the principle of making a perfect duplicate of the original, of potentially infinite copying. You had only to pick up a stereoscopic card and you could see everything twice. And because the copy lasted long after what it had copied was gone, there was an uneasy suspicion that the original, whether it was human or a natural scene, was less authentic than the copy, that the copy was eroding the original, in the same way as a man meeting his doppelgänger is said to feel his real self destroyed.

  For such reasons I have always wanted to know whether Kafka ever saw the film The Student of Prague, large parts of which were shot in his native city in 1913; it must certainly have been screened there too. It is true that there is no reference to it anywhere in Kafka’s letters and diaries, and Zischler tells us nothing about it either, but we may assume that the people of Prague did not ignore this famous product of the new cinematic art, with its brightly lit exterior shots. Supposing that Kafka really did see the film at this time, it would have been almost inevitable for him to recognize his own story in that of the student Balduin who is pursued by his own likeness, just as in the same year his reflections on a still from the film with Albert Bassermann, Der Andere (“The Other”), on which Zischler does write at some length, led to Kafka’s producing what Zischler calls “a snapshot of himself.” The still, which Kafka describes to Felice, reminds him of a production of Hamlet that he saw in Berlin, and of a part of his life that is now behind him, a kind of legacy in which, as so often happens when one is looking at old photographs, he is horrified to become aware of the progressive derealization of his own person and the approach of death. “Ghostly” is perhaps the best word to describe Bassermann’s appearance here. Indeed, early movies are ghostly in general, and not just because their favorite subjects included split personalities, doppelgängers and revenants, extrasensory perception, and other parapsychological phenomena, but also because of the way that for technical reasons the actors moved in and out of what was still the completely motionless scene around them like ghosts walking through a wall. Most ghostly of all, of course, is the quasi-transcendental gaze, cultivated by the male stage actors of the time, which found its ultimate expression in film, a gaze that seems to be bent on a life in which the tragic hero no longer has any part. Kafka, who often felt like a ghost among his fellow men, knew of the insatiable greed felt by the dead for those who are still alive. All his writing can be understood as a form of noctambulism, or the stage preceding it. “Walked in the streets for two hours weightless, boneless, bodiless, and thought of what I have been through while writing this afternoon,” he notes once. He imagines sending nocturnal letters to Berlin, and he himself is the phantom who, he tells Milena, drinks the kisses that he has sent out of the air before they can arrive. Zischler also quotes the passage from a letter where Kafka tells us how, going home in the electric tram, he read fragments of the posters he passed, concentrating hard. Zischler comments that Kafka’s curiosity made him soak up such images. They were obviously his substitute for a life that he could not have, insubstantial nourishment from which he was constantly developing fantastic scenarios in his dreams, both sleeping and waking, repeatedly becoming a bizarre figure from the movies himself in those scenarios. There was a strange episode when, so he tells Max Brod on a postcard, he felt faint at the doctor’s, had to lie down on the couch, and suddenly “felt so very much a girl that I attempted to put my girl’s skirt in order with my fingers.” Are not such dream sequences like films screened in the camera obscura of his mind, through which he moves like his own ghost? Zischler delicately probes the currents running between reality and imagination. The films about which he writes are really just the filter through which a new light is cast on the intensity of an almost uninterrupted process of dreaming and mourning, shifting between real life and fiction. Kafka’s diaries are full of accounts of experiences in which daily life dissolves into airy pictures before our eyes, as if in a cinematic effect. For instance, he stands on a railway station platform, saying good-bye to the actress Frau Klug:

  We … shook hands; I took off my hat and then held it to my chest, we stepped back as one does when a train is about to start, as if to show that all is over and one is reconciled to it. But the train did not start yet, and we approached each other again; I was glad of that, she asked after my sisters. All of a sudden the train slowly began to move, Frau Klug got her handkerchief ready to wave, called that I must write to her, did I have her address? She was already too far off for me to be able to reply in words; I pointed to Löwy f
rom whom I could get her address, good, she nodded quickly to me and to him and waved her handkerchief, I raised my hat, clumsily at first, with more ease the farther away she was. Later I remembered my impression that the train was not really moving away but only going the short distance through the station to act a scene for us and then disappear. When I was half asleep that same evening Frau Klug appeared to me, unnaturally small, almost without legs, wringing her hands with a despairing expression, as if some great misfortune had befallen her.

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