The Pioneering Film Theory of Béla Balázs

The Hungarian poet Béla Balázs (1884–1949), born Herbert Bauer to a German Jewish family in Szeged , is best remembered for his libretto to Béla Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle and the scenario for Bartók’s ballet The Wooden Prince . Yet he was also a pioneering film theorist, as a compelling new publication from Berghahn Books , “Béla Balázs: Early Film Theory: ‘Visible Man’ and ‘The Spirit of Film’” reminds us.

In these key texts, the depth and perceptiveness of Balázs’s insights are due the range of his cultural interests; he was a close friend of the Hungarian Jewish philosopher György Lukács , born Löwinger György Bernát in Budapest, until the latter’s hardline Communism put Balázs off. Other artsy Budapest Jewish friends of his youth included Manó Kertész Kaminer , who as “Michael Curtiz” later directed “Casablanca.”

Michael Löwy’s insightful “Redemption and Utopia: Jewish Libertarian Thought in Central Europe: A Study in Elective Affinity” ( Stanford University Press ) terms Balázs and his circle a “generation of dreamers and Utopians,” yet his razor-sharp focus on film action makes his observations percipient, like his analysis of Pola Negri’s death scene in the title role of Ernst Lubitsch ’s 1918 film “Carmen” : “She strokes her murderer’s arm with a strangely tender mournfulness. This gesture tells us that she has long ceased to love him. But she understands only too well why he stabbed her.”

In a further 1922 Lubitsch/Negri collaboration, “The Flame” (sadly lost today), Balázs describes how Negri, as a prostitute, rearranges her boudoir, in which “every piece of furniture has something aggressive and mendacious about it,” into a decent-looking room. Faces and inanimate objects are eloquent in silent films, and erotics are everywhere. Balázs cites the Austrian Jewish psychoanalyst Hanns Sachs , who claimed, perhaps naively, that a moment in Lubitsch’s 1923 “Three Women” when an “erotically aroused woman” unbuttons a man’s waistcoat and “takes out his tie” is an “unconsciously symbolic scene.”

The German Jewish director Leopold Jessner ’s 1923 film “Lulu, Earth Spirit,” is “not a drama at all. It is a magnificent ensemble of erotic gestures,” alleges Balázs, comparing its Danish star Asta Nielsen , another favorite, to the notorious 1920s German dancer and prostitute Anita Berber . In a description parallel to the German Jewish author Siegfried Kracauer ’s landmark “From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film” ( Princeton University Press ), Balázs details how Nielsen as a “worn out old woman” dons makeup to meet her young lover, peering at her own face like a “general whose army is surrounded and who pores over his maps for one last time.” A great film writer whose rediscovery is long overdue.

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