With a background in academic research, criticism and film curation, the Swiss-born scholar Vinzenz Hediger is presently Professor of Film Studies at the Goethe Universität in Frankfurt am Main. His doctoral work in Zurich centred on the history of film-trailers, and was published in book form in 2001 as Verführung zum Film. Der amerikanische Kinotrailer seit 1912. Since that time his research has taken in the history of film theory, the economics of cinema and the epistemological history of media. He has edited numerous collections, including Films that Work: Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media (2009), Preserving and Exhibiting Media Art: Challenges and Perspectives (2013) and The State of Post-Cinema: Tracing the Moving Image in the Age of Digital Dissemination (2016), and together with Trond Lundemo has overseen the “Film Theory in Media History” series for Amsterdam University Press, which will publish his forthcoming monograph The Miracle of Realism: André Bazin and the Cosmology of Film. The central contribution that Hediger has made in the development of European film and media studies in the 21st century is further underscored by his role in co-founding the European Network for Cinema and Media Studies (NECS), which is now the continent’s main umbrella organisation for the discipline.
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DF: It strikes me that there is a big difference between the film theory cultures of France and Germany, in the sense that French film theory is still highly national, it’s its own organic entity, with certain conduits to the outside world, but still mainly self-referential. Whereas the German equivalent seems to have become more enveloped into a global, Anglo-American-dominant, film studies network.
VH: Absolutely. If we go way back to the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was one German correspondent of the filmologie network, Erich Feldmann, who was a professor at the University of Bonn, who contributed a study on cinema-going habits to the Révue and later had one of Cohen-Séat’s books translated into German and published as “Philosophie und Film” with Bertelsmann, a book club which has now morphed into one of the top seven media corporations in the world, by the way. And that is basically the only connection of international film studies to Germany in the immediate post-war era. Prior to that of course in the 1920s you had Kracauer and a lot of smart intellectuals writing about cinema (see the volume by Anton Kaes, Nicholas Baer and Michael Cowan, a brilliant survey of the whole discourse in the late Kaiser era and the 1920s). In terms of academic works, there was Emilie Altenloh’s seminal dissertation on the sociology of cinema from 1914 and Rudolf Harms’ Philosophie des Films from 1925, which was a dissertation in philosophy, and of course Rudolf Arnheim’s Film as Art, which started life as a dissertation in perceptual psychology directed by Max Wertheimer.
The institutionalisation of film studies actually starts in Frankfurt in the early 1970s. The impulse comes out of a variety of humanities disciplines, ranging from American studies to Germanistik (German Studies) and, of course, philosophy. The protagonists include Karsten Witte, a scholar who has a strong interest in Kracauer (and actually edits the German translation of The Theory of Film, which only comes out in 1985 in a complete version), Miriam Hansen, who comes out of American Studies, Gertrud Koch (philosophy, social pedagogy), Heide Schlüpmann of course, who was Adorno’s student. For her film studies is the continuation of critical theory by other means. As she herself once put it in conversation, she literally migrated from philosophy into the cinema after Adorno’s untimely death in 1969.
But what binds these people together is a connection to critical theory and a strong commitment to feminist theory, sexual politics and gender issues. One of the main platforms of the Frankfurt film studies group is Frauen und Film, and important journal which is still published today, and they are from the outset well-connected internationally, particularly to Britain and the US. Miriam Hansen goes to the US in the late 1970s, first as a functionary for the Goethe Institut, then she transfers into academia, and uses journals such as New German Critique to promote German film scholars. Heide’s first essays appear there, translated by Miriam. Gertrud Koch first came to prominence in Germany as a film critic for the left-leaning Frankfurter Rundschau, in the mold of Kracauer, one might say (and as a counterpart of sorts to her own brother Gerhard, who was the chief music critic for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the successor to Kracauer’s erstwhile employer, the Frankfurter Zeitung, from the mid-1970s to 2003). Steeped as it was in Frankfurt critical theory, Koch’s work was also published by New German Critique and other journals, and she quickly became an established critical theory figure who’s associated with October and other networks, and who is a leading figure in both film studies and Jewish studies (through her book Die Einstellung ist die Einstellung, for instance). But it’s international networks from the outset, particularly in the Anglo world, and it’s feminist critical theory which serves the paradigm.
When I started studying in Zurich in 1989, my professor was Christine Noll Brinckmann who was also a part of the Frankfurt feminist film studies group. She was also an experimental filmmaker, and she was hired by the University of Zurich at a relatively late stage in her academic life, at the age of 54. The University of Zurich wanted to have film studies, but as a minor subject (zweites Nebenfach) that people would choose in order to complete their art history or literature degree. Noll took full advantage of the institutional opportunities at Zurich, which is a rich university which then had a relatively low degree of formalised process, and she built a department from scratch in just a few years. In the twelve years that she was there she trained more than than a dozen PhD students, five of whom are now full professors in Switzerland and Germany. So Noll Brinckmann’s film studies department was a key success story in German film studies. This was really a formative place.
My experience when I started studying there in the early 1990s was that it was a totally international program. About half of the readings were in English, the frame of reference was Anglo-American film studies. People like Richard Dyer would turn up and give talks on a regular basis. So the people we read were also the people we met. That’s really the Frankfurt model of film studies that was initiated in the early 1970s, coming out of American studies, German studies and philosophy. When film studies became institutionalised in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when all these professorships were created between 1985 and 1991-1992 (in Berlin, Bochum, Frankfurt, Marburg), that group was the first generation of film professors in Germany. Karsten Witte went to the Freie Universität Berlin, Gertrud Koch had her first job in Bochum and then succeeded Witte’s at Berlin in 1999, after Witte had died of AIDS. Heide Schlüpmann became a professor in Frankfurt, and so forth.
There were also a number of professors who came out of a left-wing environment, got interested in popular culture, television and film, and practised varying forms of film semiotics. Friedrich Knilli became one of the first German professors in film and media at the Technische Universität Berlin in the 1970s, working from within a semiotic paradigm. He published books on film and television analysis, and a number of texts on porn, which don’t hold up very well in the light of and advanced feminist critique. At the University of Münster, the Münsteraner Arbeitskreis für Semiotik (Münster Working Group for Semiotics) translated Metz’ key works into German and produced important scholars like Hans-Jürgen Wulff, later a professor at the University of Kiel and a founder of Germany’s most important film theory journal, Montage AV. Some of the figures in film semiotics, in sharp distinction to the Frankfurt group, were rather wary of American influences. Knut Hickethier, a television scholar who worked in a large project on the history of television programming at the University of Siegen and later moved to the University of Hamburg, comes to mind.
The first professorship for film was actually professorship for theatre and film at the University of Cologne, which was held by Renate Möhrmann, a noted feminist literary scholar, since 1977. Combining theatre and film was the model that was then followed by other universities. Film Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin is a “seminar” attached to the theatre department, the Frankfurt department was created as a department of theatre, film and media, which it still is, and Bochum also started out on that model, before theatre and film/media went separate ways at the end of the 1990s. Mainz, which also created a film studies department in the 1990s, remained a bit of an outlier in the field, with a strong focus on genre and auteurist approaches and an explicit rejection of theory.
But genealogically, there was definitely a strong connection to the Anglo-American field, stronger than the French field. In Switzerland it’s slightly different because we’re a partly Francophone country. Zurich is a city that, at least in the 1980s and 1990s, looked as much to Paris as to New York and Los Angeles for its cultural references. It was more common for students to go to Paris to study, and so in Switzerland there is a stronger connection to France than in Germany.
The other structuring element of the field in Germany is the often contentious relationship between film studies and Medienwissenschaft (media studies), particularly the Kittlerian paradigm. Kittler came out of Germanistik, and you might say that Medienwissenschaft in Germany started when the Germanist Kittler started pondering the fact that the book he was reading also happened to be a material object. Along with other scholars, among them philosopher Georg Christoph Tholen and computer scientist Wolfgang Coy, Kittler and his students developed an interest in the materiality of communication, and particularly in information technology and the history of the computer. Out of this came a paradigm of research which stipulated that media technology was actually more important than semantics of any kind. We could illustrate this point with a reference to Plato’s cave: apparatus theory, which emerged about a decade before Kittler, focused on the dispositif to deconstruct the illusion that appeared on screen, Kittlerian media theory focused on the dispositif, period. The Kittler school acknowledge what you might call Plato’s uncertainty principle: you can’t leave the cave and have it, too. You need to make a choice, and their choice was for technology, at the expense of semantics. But once you have made that choice, those who continue to focus on semantics must appear as hopelessly naïve and outdated. They must, in fact, become the enemy. There is something of a Schmittian outlook in Kittler: friend-enemy relationships structure the world and make it thinkable. And one of the early enemies was film studies in its incarnation at the time – people like Knilli or Hickethier, which were certainly not representative of film studies in its entirety, and had very little to do with the Frankfurt circle, to which I feel indebted. The enemy that the Kittler school made film studies out to be was largely a straw man, but it helped them sharpen their minds, so it’s all good.
The apprehensions were mutual. Heide Schlüppmann told me the story of how she obtained a copy of Kittler’s Grammophone Typewriter Film, started reading it, and got so angry with it that she threw the book across the room. The next day Miriam Hansen comes to visit, sees the book lying in the corner and says “What is this?” And Heide Schlüppman says, “It’s a piece of crap, you can have it.” So Miriam takes the book with her to the US… It wasn’t Miriam Hansen who introduced Kittler to the US, but she was certainly more open to that paradigm. This episode gives you a sense of how fraught the tensions were. But in a way, it was a big misunderstanding, at least between the Kittler school and the Frankfurt paradigm. Heide Schlüpmann and Friedrich Kittler later actually co-supervised the dissertation of Ute Holl together, who is now a professor at the University of Basel and a major figure in German media theory today. That book, Cinema, Trance and Cybernetics, has just been published in English, by the way.
The Kittler paradigm was always a bit contentious in German academia. Kittler famously needed a dozen referees to get his Habilitation thesis passed, which is unique in German university history. But we – by which I mean film and media scholars in Germany – all owe him a debt of gratitude. If you understand German academia, and just how conservative it can be, particularly in the humanities, then you can appreciate what he achieved. Kittler really opened a field of study by connecting topics that, according to the disciplinary strictures of German academia, had been strictly separate. Kittler connected literary studies with information science, computer science, history of technology, history of science, it became an enormously productive paradigm. All these connections, which partly define what is now known as “German media theory”, became possible through that initial, field-defining gesture of Kittler.
And he also had a hand in helping film studies become institutionalised. Kittler moved to Bochum in 1986, where he became professor of Germanistik. Bochum was founded in 1966, one of the big new universities of the 1960s. A bit like the University of Warwick in England, which was also founded in 1966, Bochum was founded to compensate for the industrial decline of the Ruhr valley, and also like Warwick, Bochum became a cutting-edge place for film and media studies. Kittler, despite all his apprehensions about the discipline, was actually instrumental in creating film and media studies in Bochum, before leaving for Berlin in 1993. At that time, Gertrud Koch had moved to Bochum, and obtained one of the first professorships there, and so the Frankfurt paradigm became a frame of reference for Bochum as well.
I guess one of the main differences may be this: “German media theory” really was a German project, and a white male German project at that. At one point, Kittler, Tholen, Coy and co. were usefully described as the “Turing Stones”, in reference to Alan Turing, one of the figures that the circle idolised. Film studies in Germany on the other has always has been, and continues to be, a thoroughly international and diverse project. Speaking as an immigrant myself, I like to say that film studies in Germany is a discipline of foreigners, Jews and queers.
DF: Is this a state that still exists? Is there still a state of war between the two branches, “Medienwissenschaft” and “Filmwissenschaft”?
VH: No, not really, or certainly not as much as there used to be. The film and television studies wing formed their own society in 1985, which at the time was called the Gesellschaft für Film- und Fernsehwissenschaft (Society for Film and Television Studies). Paying tribute to the evolving nature of the field, the GFF renamed itself the Gesellschaft für Medienwissenschaft (Society for Media Studies) in 2002, and that signalled the claim that film and television studies should expand to include other subjects and paradigms. Some people, like Joachim Paech, who translated some of the key texts from apparatus theory into German in the 1970s and 1980s before becoming a professor at the University of Konstanz, had already moved from film studies to a broader understanding of media theory. The joint framework was that these were scholars working on the aesthetics and history of media. It’s a historical discipline, it’s about aesthetics and theory, it’s not communication studies. So the relabelling of the association signalled that it now had the ambition to be the umbrella association for anyone working on the history and aesthetics of media. But it took a few years for that to be worked out and for the rift to heal. What happened is that the second generation of both Kittlerians and film scholars got along better with each other than the founding fathers, and were more interested in each other’s work.
In institutional terms, the most remarkable juncture between the two strands has happened in Weimar at the Bauhaus Universität. Lorenz Engell, who earned his Ph.D. in film studies at the University of Cologne with Renate Möhrmann, moved to Weimar in 1993, where he founded an entire faculty for media studies, the “Fakultät Medien”. When a second full professorship was created with money from the Bucerius Foundation in 1999, named after the publisher of the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit, Weimar hired Bernhard Siegert, Kittler’s former assistant at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Engell is essentially a film and television scholar, but he’s been working under the heading Medienphilosophie (philosophy of media) for most of his time in Weimar. Siegert developed his own approach to cultural analysis called Kulturtechnikforschung (cultural technology research) out of Kittlerian media theory. Together, they formed an international research center, the IKKM (Internationales Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie) in 2007. The IKKM has been one of the main research centres in Germany in media and cultural studies for the last ten years, and while the two paradigms do not always get along without tensions, film and television remain a focus of both research and teaching at the Bauhaus Universität.
As far as the broader field is concerned, I witnessed the transition to a joint association and disciplinary politics first-hand in my years as a member of the steering committee of the GfM from 2007 to 2011. That was a politically difficult situation, because at the time the communication studies association, which was called the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Publizistik- und Kommunikationswissenschaft (German Society for Journalism and Communication Studies) wanted to rename themselves the Gesellschaft für Kommunikations- und Medienwissenschaft (Society for Communication and Media Studies). They wanted to claim the Medienwissenschaft mantle. Our political move was to signal to them that the mantle was already taken, and that they would run into all sorts of problems if they did that. They ended up having a vote among the membership. Luckily for us they were too conservative to change, and so they left the field of Medienwissenschaft largely to us. What we did at the time was to create the Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft (Journal of Media Studies). That was one of our initial moves: we needed a journal of reference for the entire field, which defines the field, so that there are no mistakes about what Medienwissenschaft refers to. The appearance of that journal, which was created by a group of people around Ulrike Bergermann (of the Hochschule der Künste Braunschweig) and Kathrin Peters (now at the Universutät der Künste in Berlin), has had an interesting effect on the development of the field. It’s a very well-designed journal; it looks terrific and makes you want to pick it up and read it. That look, and the fact that membership in the Gesellschaft includes a subscription, got a lot of people interested. When the journal first appeared, the association had 277 members. It now has 1500 members. Through the journal, scholars discovered that there was an association, and they decided to join. So this grew the field very quickly. The annual conferences are now big events with 400 attendees and 250 presenters, whereas they used to be very intimate affairs with 40-50 attendees and 15 presenters. There are still certain contentions. Some of my colleagues from film studies feel that they are marginalised in this newer, larger association, but they are really the largest group in the association, and publish a significant share of articles in the journal. So the tensions remain, but they are now under a larger umbrella that has proven to be very useful politically.
There are currently about 20 German language universities offering bachelor and master degrees in media studies, and most of those degree programs include film in their core curriculum (see http://medienwissenschaft-studieren.org). So the umbrella model also works in teaching.
DF: It sounds like a similar dynamic to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) and Cinema Journal.
VH: The logic was the same, but SCMS grew from the inside out, whereas the GfM had to bridge a real rift. But like the GfM, SCMS is co-opting the new research paradigms in media and cultural studies that are not communication studies. They need to have an institutional home, and that also bolsters the field of film studies. It’s the law of large numbers. The association of media studies in Germany is now one-and-a-half times the size of the communications studies association, and that matters on a political level.
DF: Is there a downside to this growth?
VH: No, not as yet.
DF: Going to SCMS I have a sense of inflation, which is not always salutary.
VH: I can sense that for SCMS. The first time I went to SCMS in 2000 there were maybe 400 papers, and it’s grown four or fivefold since then. It was a fairly intimate affair at the time. There is a point where it becomes ridiculous, where it becomes MLA, and that’s not so fun anymore. But German media and cultural studies still has an intimate feel to it. Going to the conference is still your yearly opportunity to meet all your colleagues and friends. It works out quite well. Size does matter in these fields, particularly since everyone else is becoming interested in film and media, because that is where the students go. So a lot of people are trying to teach film and media, and they sometimes do it without acknowledging that there is an existing field, and without knowing the literature. So it is fairly important to be able to say that there is a discipline, and there are standards. Policing institutional boundaries is one of the saddest parts of academic life, but it is sometimes necessary in a paradoxical fashion, to main the openings that film and media studies as a field, rather than a discipline, has to offer. There is a certain usefulness to that because it creates spaces where you can actually continue to do the kind of research that first drew us to the field. What initially drew me to film studies was the hybrid and composite nature of the field. And the fact that there were all kinds of smart, off-beat people, who loved the university but were wary of the institutional process. I was originally going for a dissertation in philosophy, and I switched to film studies because I loved the subject, but also because I felt the research culture was much more interesting, more diverse.
DF: Do you find there’s still that same sense of intellectual curiosity, and even weirdness, in film studies?
VH: I think so. I’m 47 now, so I’m growing old, but there’s a lot of young people coming up who are doing exciting work, and not just your standard routine of discussing some detail in Proust’s work a little more by switching the paradigm two or three times. There is still a lot less routine in film studies than there is in more established disciplines. I don’t know how long that is going to last. Maybe in my old age I will turn into an anti-institutionalist and try to tear down all the structures that we built because they’ve ossified the discipline. But I don’t think we’re at that point yet. I still think that it’s a discipline that is still ready to question its basic ways, its basic modes of operation. That you can do that as a discipline is a good sign.
In Germany, there’s a lot of funding for humanities research, at least compared to other countries. The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the country’s main science funding body, reserves about a third of its budget, about 200 million euros per year, for research in the humanities. There’s also billions of euros going into research institutions outside of the university, and some of those conduct humanities research. There’s a Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, for instance, while the Zentrum für Literaturforschung (Centre for Literature Research) in Berlin is now part of the Leibniz Gesellschaft, another non-university research body. It’s quite amazing.
DF: Is there a culture of corporate paternalism that is responsible for a lot of this funding?
VH: Yes, to a certain extent. The Krupp foundation sponsors a lot of humanities projects. The Thyssen foundation puts money into the humanities, but they’re mostly marginal players. The government is by far the most important actor in the field. The reason why corporations do this kind of thing is that a lot of the old corporations in Germany were run as sole ownership units. Until 1967, Krupp was a sole ownership entity. It was legally the same as a neighbourhood grocery store, only with 100,000s of employees. Then the tax code changed, and if Krupp had been passed onto the next generation, the inheritance tax would have wiped out the company. That’s when Krupp became a foundation. It continued to be a for-profit operation, but part of the profits were invested in projects that benefited the common good, and funding science was part of that. A desire to make amends for the company’s role in the Third Reich may have helped to speed along the transformation. My first job in Germany was a Krupp Foundation professorship. The last step in my hiring process was to have a cup of tea with Berthold Beitz, the legendary head of the foundation, who had been recruited by Krupp in 1954, because he was one of the very few German managers to come out of the war without the stench of Nazism about him. In fact, as a manager for Shell in Bessarabia during the war, he had saved hundreds of Jewish lives. Beitz told me about his friend Max Schmeling and the time he met Khrushchev, and he showed me his Yad Vashem medal. Then he signed my contract. But those are rare events. In percentage terms, corporate patronage is a minor part of the funding for the humanities. By far the most important actor is the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation), which is the main funding source for research projects at universities.
DF: Is that coming under pressure at the moment, from government budget cuts?
VH: I hear my colleagues complaining about how the humanities are under attack, but that’s not the impression I have here in Germany. The main problem is that the Länder, the states, which run the universities, are currently imposing an austerity policy on tertiary education. They are trying to squeeze the universities like lemons, by cutting budgets and increasing the mandatory number of students at the same time. The only way to compensate for the budget cutbacks is to acquire research money. For every euro from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, for instance, there is a 20 cent bonus for administration costs, which goes to the university. Some universities could no longer operate without that money. So being a professor in Germany right now means to have the license to get the money to do the job that you were originally hired to do. The good news for us poor humanities professors is that there is research money available to solve that problem. Right now the head of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft is an expert in mediaeval literature, Peter Strohschneider, a brilliant man. One of the things that he is known for is writing missives to the EU authorities in charge of science funding at the European level in Brussels, telling them to change course and put more money into the humanities, holding up Germany as an example. And for a reason. I come from Switzerland, which is a thoroughly commercial society, where the humanities and the arts flourish, but only after office hours. They are not really taken seriously because there’s no money in it. The standing of the humanities in Germany is much better, both inside and outside the university. For me, making the transition to Germany has been a very good experience. I realised that people assumed the humanities were relevant, and nobody questioned the validity of what you were doing. It was a good experience. Maybe Germany really is an exception, together with France. In the US, they certainly have other problems now. There are pockets of hostility to critical thought as we know it. But that too is not really much of a problem in Germany. Part of the reason for this is that the quality German newspapers (the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung) have very strong cultural pages, feuilletons, which reach beyond your usual book reviewing and theatre reviewing, and stir debates around social and cultural issues, covering all kinds of relevant topics. The FAZ has a weekly 4-page section dedicated to universities and research, including the humanities. The journalists working for the paper see eye to eye with university scholars. Papers like the FAZ have an important function as a medium of transmission and feedback, creating public awareness for research, and providing a platform for scholars to communicate with audiences and colleagues. Humanities scholars read the newspapers partly to figure out what’s going on in other disciplines. It’s like an open academy. And that certainly helps to maintain the standing of the humanities in Germany. I am actually more concerned about the future of these newspapers than the standing of the humanities right now.
DF: It also seems relatively common for people to cross between academia and journalism in Germany.
VH: Oh yeah, that happens. Gertrud Koch is a case in point. But a lot of people who are in academia have a background in journalism. On the other hand, in order to be a full editor at the FAZ or the NZZ, you usually have to have a PhD. The editor jobs are usually lifetime appointments. So you go for a period where you work as a freelancer, then you are assigned your area and you work on it for the rest of your life. It’s basically like a professorship, because you become enormously well-versed in your subject. And that allows you to see eye to eye with academics on disciplinary topics. In those quality newspapers you have a compartmentalisation that is not unlike the disciplinary structure in universities. They’re all under attack from the internet of course. I see that in my son’s school. The newspapers make enormous efforts to cultivate a readership. They give out trial subscriptions to high school students and invite them to write articles for the paper. And I am actually rooting for them to succeed. As I said, quality newspapers are indispensable conduits for research, and play a very important role in their relationship to the universities.
DF: You seem relatively positive about the state of the field, but what about the state of the object: film itself?
VH: I think we’re living through a really exciting time. There’s so much going on. We still have the classical canon, there’s still so much to be done on film history. But at the same time the objects are transitioning, morphing into different areas, new connections are being created, and I see endless research opportunities. A few years ago, a famous film scholar came to Frankfurt to give the Kracauer lecture (www.kracauer-lectures.de), and over dinner he tried to convince us that film studies was in some kind of terminal state of decay. We didn’t share that feeling. Frankly, that’s also not the feedback we get from our neighbouring disciplines. One of the great things about the University of Frankfurt, at least in my experience, is that you can work across disciplinary boundaries with great ease: musicology, art history, philosophy, anthropology, legal studies are all responsive, and even in larger projects, which are now de rigueur in German universities, film studies usually has a seat at the table. So cinema is not dead, film studies is not in crisis – even though we sometimes tactically claim it to be in order to get funding for new projects, which aim to figure out where film studies will move next.
DF: Do you think that the discourse around the death of cinema, and the death of film studies was also a generational issue, that a certain generation of scholars had to see the field as dying, when this wasn’t actually reflecting reality.
VH: Yeah, that’s more or less how I see it. The death of cinema is the death of a certain notion and experience of cinema. The cinema that turned Raymond Bellour into a major film theorist was the cinema that he discovered in ciné-clubs in Lyon, at the Cinémathèque Suisse in nearby Lausanne, where he and his friends travelled on occasion because their collection was famous, and of course the cinema that he experienced in the 1960s and 1970s in Paris. For Bellour, a Mizoguchi film screened on a television set in a hotel room is not cinema. That’s clear-cut definition, but one that excludes much of what constitutes moving image culture today. But I understand the elegiac tone. Heide Schlüppmann speaks about cinema in a similar way, as a lost, or at least disappearing object. Heide Schlüppmann is what you might call a celluloid fundamentalist. She only projects 16mm films in class. When I arrived in Frankfurt, the department didn’t have a video projector, or a DVD collection. It had a film archive of 500 16mm prints, and that’s what the teaching revolved around. You can do that: it’s a clear-cut focus, a set paradigm. We still use the projector, but we now also have a video projector, and some of the films that we screen can even be found on YouTube, and only on YouTube. But yeah, I think it’s a generational thing. It’s the founding generation realising that cinema is no longer what it used to be. About ten years ago, I visited a friend in Los Angeles, who is a director of photography, and he had just bought a new state of the art video and sound system. After dinner we checked it out, and there was a B-western on TCM. The film wasn’t very good, but then a scene with a sandstorm came on, and suddenly everyone fell silent and looked and listened in awe. It was quite an experience. When it was over, we concurred that this film never sounded – and by implication, looked and felt – this good in the theatre. I later told Dudley Andrew about this, and he said, “That can’t be. You must be wrong.” Since I’d never seen the film in a theatre, I had no way to substantiate my claim even from personal experience. But Dudley’s reaction was very clear, and consistent: the cinema space is the paradigm. That doesn’t worry me all that much. We all acknowledge the massive contribution of that generation of film scholars to the field. They created it. They have a certain right to be sad. But that’s not how I feel. And that’s not how our students feel.
DF: So you still sense from students a certain optimism about the cinema?
VH: One of the great things about teaching film studies is that you teach people something they are already quite familiar with, but their knowledge doesn’t usually get validated in school or university. The liberating experience for many students is to realise that you can do critical studies at a very high level by analysing things that you are already familiar with and talk about stuff that you’re passionate about. And no elegy for cinema will ever convince them that what they love and like to think about is somehow not relevant. So that is one of our advantages as a discipline is that we’re dealing with objects that people really care about. It’s still a discipline driven by love and desire.
DF: A book that came out last year that you edited talked about post-cinema. Is that a category that you adhere to?
VH: No! My argument about post-cinema is: “OK, we got it. Enough already. What’s next?” The person that helped me understand the problem was a PhD student of mine who writes about Balkan post-war cinema, Asja Makarevic. Asja is from Sarajevo and worked as a programmer for the festival there. Her choice of topic has an existential background, one that becomes immediately clear once you start to think about it. Her point of departure is that the films she works on relate to what you might call a permanent post-war condition. The war is over, but the post-war condition endures, which is insufferable. The problem is how to get out of it.
Now we as film and media scholars are voluntarily positioning ourselves at that juncture in history. We keep on telling ourselves and everyone who wants to hear that we somehow live after cinema and focus all our best intellectual efforts on finding out what exactly that means. If you were mean you could say that it is one of those concepts that you can throw around to position yourself in the avant-garde without having to substantiate it. So I think the real challenge today is to move beyond that and to ask what comes after the post-cinema condition, or to ask whether we ever really were in the post-cinema condition to begin with. It’s time to reformulate what you’re trying to refer to under the heading of post-cinema in different terms that are more productive and help us to go forward.
DF: We could almost say that an age of media heterogeneity is coming to an end.
VH: I recently had a discussion with one of the editors of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung who was thinking of writing an article about ISIS’ online video clips. He was impressed with the production values, and his assumption was that these guys must have had tons of money, and been trained in film schools. I sent him a list of links of stuff you can buy on amazon for very little money that allows you to achieve that kind of production quality. You can produce that kind of footage with an Iphone today. So he thanked me and never wrote that article because it kind of fell apart.
DF: But in a way that argument is much more interesting. Even a rag tag militia in a Third World country can come up with cinema-quality images now.
VH: It’s a great convergence in moving images.
DF: Jean-Louis Comolli has written about this. And his argument is that these clips are fundamentally cinematic, particularly with their relationship to questions of death and the real. Which brings us to your latest project about Bazin and cosmology, a book in the offing. I’ve heard it’s quite a polemical exercise.
VH: We’ll see. The basic argument is that there used to be two ways of reading Bazin. One toned down his Catholicism to make him more amenable to neo-Marxist sensibilities. The other one highlighted the Catholic dimension of his thought to make him not amenable to the film studies mainstream. Dudley Andrew said this a long time ago, but nobody has taken up this argument systematically, which is that you can only understand Bazin if you take his Catholicism seriously. That’s the thread I am trying to pick up. It’s not a book about whether or not Bazin was a devout Catholic, but whether or not his categories are underpinned by the way the basic problems of semiotics and image theory were formulated in Catholic theology in the Middles Ages and later on.
DF: So the idea is to situate these debates around film and realism in a much more venerable tradition going back to the Middle Ages of disputes around the nature of images?
VH: Yes, but one of the claims is also that we are not as secular as we think we are. If you grow up in a Western, Christian-inflected culture, even if you think you are no longer a devout Christian, your categories are such that they will be formulated in terms that reiterate certain problems of which we barely have any notion today. What is the nature of Christ’s body? How did we define the Church as the corpus mysticum? How do we transition from the flesh to the image? My experience has been, going back to the literature, how eminently modern all these problems are. All the debates about realism haven’t really moved on from these categories. So the idea is to put them back in that framework, and elucidate the fact that we haven’t moved on as far as we think we have.
DF: I can’t help but think of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma in this discussion. The sacred concept of the image that Godard comes back to.
VH: I like to quip that Godard is the Protestant Paul to Bazin’s Catholic Jesus. There will be a short concluding section that presents this argument.
DF: Did that sacral heritage fuel the cinephilia that is the origin point of film studies?
VH: You can make that point, I guess. You know Bazin’s text on the film festival as a monastic order of worshippers. Of course, most readers will always say about that text, “This is ironic!” But there’s a reason why this analogy works. Cinephilia was also, for a very long time, a very male-dominated enterprise. So, again, there’s a monastic aspect. But then, Laura Mulvey is also a cinephile. There’s some work that remains to be done on the gender politics of cinephilia, I guess.
DF: You’ve also written a lot about world cinema and the spatial or geographical distribution of films. This appears to be something extremely contemporary, with the newly fragile state of globalisation as a socio-economic tendency. Will this have an impact on the cinema?
VH: Well, like it or not, I don’t think globalisation is in a terribly fragile state. It has lots of enemies, but they’ll have to be more competent to stop it. If you look at what Trump is trying to do in America, he always butts his head against the institutional realities of the world order put into place over the last decades. He is doing real damage to people’s lives, particularly by tearing up immigrant families in the US. But he won’t be able to build his wall, or take away China’s new found wealth. You can’t reverse that course just at will, and the economy is not a zero-sum game anyways. Globalisation has massive downsides, and the loss of employment for workers with average skill sets in Western economies, which we keep on hearing so much about, is just one of them. But other than that, the advantages of globalisation will continue to outweigh the problems. What interests me as a film scholar is how the end of Western, and particularly Anglo-Saxon, ascendancy will affect our understanding of world cinema. I’m always overly optimistic, of course, but I can’t see how Brexit and Trump are not symptoms of the impending demise of unfettered white male dominance. On a flight with Emirates a couple of years ago, I realised that the inflight entertainment system featured three early Satyajit Ray films, while all French films were listed under “World Cinema”. That’s interesting. The Gulf states invest in air travel because two-thirds of the world population live in an eight-hour flight radius around Dubai. That portends some significant shifts in our cultural geographies over the years to come. Netflix will be a company to watch. Their first great achievement was to destroy the videostore, which they managed to do by offering an unlimited backlist without late fees. Then they solved the technical problem of the online-streaming platform. Then they moved into production, for the same reason that First National moved into production in the late 1910s, to avoid becoming dependent on Hollywood for content and to fend off any takeover attempt from major studios. And now they produce art house films with French directors and blockbuster films in South Korea. Disney bought Miramax in 1993 because they wanted a share of the art house film market but didn’t feel they were competent to produce their own films for that niche. Netflix on the other hand seems to have the people skills to set up projects that end up in the Cannes competition and involve the most commercially successful filmmakers in East Asia at the same time. I’d be interested in talking to the people who negotiated those contracts, and to the people who hired them. So yes, I don’t think globalisation is going to be over soon, and I certainly don’t think that the global circulation of films and moving images is going to come to an end any time soon.
Interviewed by Daniel Fairfax