Primitive Spectators

Lukács and Hofmannsthal on Film
  • Assenka Oksiloff


The final chapters of this book examine films and essays that address the question of early cinema as a social and aesthetic phenomenon. In reading these texts from an anthropological point of view, I would like to suggest ways in which emergent models of film relied, explicitly and otherwise, upon dominant ethnographic myths and modes of observation. The nature of this adaptation varies from case to case. At times, as in the texts treated in the present chapter, the ethnographic plays a hand in forming representation of the modern spectator. The standardization of viewership involves, as I shall argue, a process of taming the body of the spectator in a fashion much akin to the visual taming of the native body in ethnographic and colonialist films of early years. At times, cinema itself is presented as this unruly body, mutely gesturing from an “elsewhere” to the traditional sphere of aesthetics. At their most suggestive moments, however, these texts take up the ethnographic in order to articulate the multiplicity of registers that coexist in the visual text. The various texts that I shall treat do not represent a single whole, either as a Spenglerian organic unity or as a chronology of aesthetic progress. Instead, they offer various insights into the scope of cinematic vision as well as an ethnographic-style envisioning of cinema itself as it was conceived in the silent era.


Movie Theater Screen Image Narrative Cohesion Kinetic Force Male Viewer 
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  1. 1.
    For two recent discussions of this film, see Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Fil. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), and Judith Mayne, The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women’s Cinem. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990). Mayne is concerned with the way that the film stages the basic terms of dominant classical spectatorship, identifying in the film a “rudimentary story that functions as a primal scene of the cinema” (32). Hansen, in contrast, claims that the film features competing economies of spectatorship that were prevalent during the “primitive” era of film. In my own discussion, I draw primarily upon Hansen’s work as a springboard for a critique of the “primal” and “primitive.”Google Scholar
  2. 2.
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    Classic street films include: G. W. Pabst’s Freudlose Gass. (1925);Google Scholar
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  19. and Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, der Spiele. (1922). As Anton Kaes notes, a number of naturalist “Kammerspiel” films from the early 1920s concerned themselves with the psychological complexities of modern life, depicting the monotony of mass culture as a speechlessness that is compensated for by the art of gesture and mimicry. See Anton Kaes, “Weimarer Republik,” in Jakobson, Kaes, and Prinzler, Geschichte des deutschen Films. 56.Google Scholar

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© Assenka Oksiloff 2001

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  • Assenka Oksiloff

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