Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Béla Balázs, Ed. by Erica Carter, Trans. by Rodney Livingstone

Béla Balázs: Early Film Theory — Visible Man and The Spirit of Film. Edited by Erica Carter. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. New York: Berghahn Books, 2010.

Béla Balázs: Early Film Theory is part of the Film Europa: German Cinema in an International Context series published by Berghahn Books. Highlights of the book include translation notes, a glossary, book reviews by contemporaries, and a full introduction by Erica Carter with 12 reproductions of photographs that depict Balázs in the context of war, travel, lecturing, and meetings with friends and colleagues such as Georg Lukács.

In her introduction to this compilation of Balázs’s Visible Man and The Spirit of Film, Carter demonstrates why the time has come for renewed interest in Balázs. Just as we are currently experiencing a rapid influx of new technologies that are changing the way we tell stories and communicate information, “Balázs’s early works appeared in a period of accelerated technological development” (xvi). And just as our generation has people like Peter Diamandis who in his recent TED talks and publications touts a future of abundance, Carter shows how utopian visions directly influenced Balázs’s theoretical approaches to the cinema. Her history deftly frames various aspects of Balázs’s personal and professional life with an eye to deepening our understanding of how these elements shaped his particular approach to the cinema.

Beginning with Visible Man, Balázs’s enthusiasm for theory is one of the first things readers will note in Rodney Livingstone’s excellent translation. In this book, published in 1924 when universities had little or no interest in film, Balázs sets himself up as a defender of film, a defender of theories about film, and a defender of theory in general. The cinema not only has a right to be considered as an art, but it “has been standing at the gates of your noble academy, seeking permission to enter” (3).

High rhetoric to be sure, but catching. Balázs persuasively convinces us that theory is a creative force. Theories don’t even have to be correct in order to be positively creative, hence Balázs’s anxieties at the academic dismissal of film and the theory it was rapidly beckoning into existence by way of helping itself flourish (Balázs’ writing comes injected with mysticism).

Of the many topics Balázs covers in an almost textbook manner that uses plenty of chapters and subheadings, his favorites include the establishment of cinema as an art separate from the theatre, an art that can establish and hold our visual and mental attention in ways that no other art can, and as an art of “visible speech” (25) and gesture. He details concrete matters such as scripting, lighting, and editing as well as intangibles such as “the tempo of emotions,” (35) morality in relation to physiognomy, and the effect of being able to see actors age as we watch their careers — and lives — unroll on film.

Visible Man ends with a return to the topic of theory and a call to action, arguing that the survival of cinema as an art depends on our ability to bring our intellects up to the level of the technology in order to fully appreciate exactly what it is that we’ve got on our hands. For Balázs, theory is the most natural path.

Much of the The Spirit of Film is an exercise in repetition. Originally published in 1930, the book uses the introduction of sound and the arguments launched against this technological development as an opportunity to develop and deepen the contents of Visible Man. But now sound film is cast as a hero, one capable of rescuing and “unshackling” the theatre by allowing it “to resume the development of its own autonomous existence” (142). The most fascinating parts of The Spirit of Film involve Balasz’s discussions of films that had appeared in the interim between these two books of film theory. He moves easily between Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher and Un chien Andalou before finally settling on a genre-esque discussion of the kinds of films that have emerged, focusing on categories such as love, family, kitsch, and the detective story.

Balázs concludes The Spirit of Film with more delightful hyperbole that exposes a certain struggle with Marxist concepts of commodity. He lets film be seen in the light of trade and all its necessary repressions (including the Freudian dimensions), and yet embellishes the cinema with transcendence: “The spirit of film that I have attempted to describe in this book is the spirit of progress. Despite everything! This spirit predestines the film to become the art of the people, of the people of the world. And, if one day we are able to speak of the people of the world, then we shall find that the film will be there ready and waiting to provide the universal spirit with its corresponding technique of expression” (230).

Again, he argues, the duty falls on the audience to educate itself about the workings of film in order to effectively perceive its grandeur. It is through theory that Balázs has achieved his own abilities in understanding film, which suggests that this book will benefit any student encountering film theory in either an introductory, intermediate, or advanced course or any context where deepening our understanding or love for film is the goal. These two books by Balázs are not to be sequestered for the purposes of film history alone.