The Visible Man

The Film Theory of Béla Balázs
  • Assenka Oksiloff


Béla Balázs’s first major work, The Visible Man appeared in 1924, more than ten years after Lukács’s first essay on film. Following Lukács’s lead, Balázs attempted to articulate a “philosophy of art” proper to film (Kunstphilosophie des Films). Working early in his career as a film critic, he wished to honor the medium with a theoretical perspective, thereby hoping to induct it into the pantheon of “great aesthetic systems.”1 Balázs and Lukács engaged in a long and volatile intellectual exchange that, although peppered with moments of symbiosis, eventually ended in estrangement. While their scholarly and ideological interests often converged, their ultimate assessment of film was quite different. For Lukács, cinema proved to be a short distraction from his more extensive studies on the novel and literary realism. When he did return to the topic over 40 years after the publication of “Thoughts on an Aesthetic,” it was limited to a series of epistolary notes that argued against a valid link between technology and aesthetics. Lukács fascination with the technical aspect of cinema thus waned considerably from his earlier Utopian response. It is possible that he eventually came to consider his interest in film to be the remnants of a capitalist indulgence, linked to the decadent pleasures he experienced in watching his favorite film actor, Charlie Chaplin.


Verbal Language Visual Text Silent Film Visual Culture Sensory Impression 
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  1. 1.
    Béla Balázs, Der Sichtbare Mensch, oder Die Kultur des Film. (Vienna: Deutsch-Österreichischer Verlag, 1924), 9. Subsequent page references toGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    For an elaboration of some of the changes in Balázs’s theories that are directly related to his Marxist politics, see Sabine Hake, The Cinema’s Third Machine: Writing on Film in Germany, 1907–193. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 236–40. Despite his increased interested in the “masses” and in realism as a preferred cinematic form, Balázs continued to focus upon theories of visuality throughout his career. This is especially evident in Balázs’s choice to reprint key passages of The Visible Ma. in his later Theory of the Film. first published in 1952.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For a cogent analysis of these warring tendencies in Balázs, see Gertrud Koch, “Béla Balázs: The Physiognomy of Things,” New German Critiqu. 40 (1987): 167–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Balázs, quoted in Heinz B. Heller, Literarische Intelligenz und Fil. (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1985), 232.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    Siegfried Kracauer, “The Little Shop Girls Go to the Movies,” in The Mass Ornament. ed. and trans. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 291. In this essay, Kracauer rejects the possibility of popular films “unmasking of social practices,” both from the standpoint of the films’ contents and the modes in which the female viewers identify with the films. While Kracauer’s imagined viewers are not as unruly as Uncle Josh, they bear some resemblance to him in their infectious enthusiasm. Kracauer’s critique of modernity converges with Balázs’s while resisting some of the latter’s neoromantic tendencies. In the essay, “The Mass Ornament,” Kracauer’s critique of “mythological thinking” as well as of modern forms of “abstractness,” is relevant in the present context.Google Scholar
  6. 14.
    In an interesting twist, Lukács also refers to the notion of “Stimmung” whe. discussing the “universal and dominant category of film’s effect,” but this only appears in his later work at a time when he no longer wishes to grant cinema the approbation he expressed in 1913. For a discussion of his last essay on film, see Thomas Levin, “From Dialectical to Normative Specificity: Reading Lukács on Film,” New German Critiqu. 40 (1987): 50.Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    Lévy-Bruhl, How Natives Think. trans. Lillian A. Clare (1926; reprint Salem, N.H.: Ayer Publishing, 1984), 127–28.Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    This classificatory capacity is a central concern of Lévi-Straus’s The Savage Min. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), a project that at first glance seems to be similar to Lévy-Bruhl’s study. One of the major differences between Lévy-Bruhl and Lévi-Strauss is that the earlier anthropologist maintains a strict boundary between the primitive and the modern, whereas Lévi-Strauss insists that the two are, in fact, characterized by similar mental acts.Google Scholar
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    See Fritz Mauthner, Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache. 3 vols. (Stuttgart: Ullstein, 1982), 1: 240–43, referred to in my text as Contributions to a Critique of Language.Google Scholar
  10. 29.
    Béla Balázs, Theory of the Film. trans. Edith Bone (New York: Dover Publications, 1972), 224.Google Scholar
  11. 33.
    Jean Epstein, “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénic” in Richard Abel, French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology. 1909–1939. vol. 1, 1909–192. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 316.Google Scholar
  12. 35.
    Robert Musil, “Towards a New Aesthetics,” in Precision and Soul. trans, and eds. Burton Pike and David S. Luft (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 194.Google Scholar

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© Assenka Oksiloff 2001

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  • Assenka Oksiloff

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