Why are film critics given special treatment

In the lead car through the history of German film criticism

About David Steinitz's attempt at an overall picture. By Martina Zerovnik

David Steinitz: History of German Film Criticism. Munich: Ed. Text + Criticism, 2015. 325 pp. ISBN 978-3-86916-409-0. Price [A]: € 39.90

When Kant answered the question “What is Enlightenment?” In 1784, he used the metaphor of the “goalkeeper car” to illustrate its opposite - the immaturity of humans: an auxiliary device with which children of his time learned to walk. In this, people who do not think independently (through no fault of their own or through laziness or cowardice) are deprived of the ability to take a step of thought alone. What mature people are confronted with 'outside' definitely requires courage - reasoning requires the ability to criticize and discern. Now a dissertation can also be seen as a step towards maturity, at least as proof that its author is able to make specific public use of his reason within a specified framework and to inscribe himself into a discourse. David Steinitz appears with his published in the edition text + kritik History of German film criticism the evidence.

In his book, Steinitz attempts to give a comprehensive picture of the “evolution” of German film criticism. Without defining this in advance and with the exception of a few Austrian examples, it refers to Germany within its current borders. At the beginning, in a chapter entitled “What does criticism mean?”, He carries out a “foray into German critical thinking in stages”, which only touches on Kant, Hegel, Marx and Adorno, whose discussion does not focus too much on relevance for film criticism and is faulty. That is a bit unsatisfactory, as the title of the chapter reminds one of Michel Foucault's lecture “What is Criticism?”, Which, as a model, would have made a stronger differentiation and systematization of the different forms and objectives of criticism possible than Steinitz would have done with the division into one “A more aesthetic-subjective approach (early days of film criticism and the digital age)” and a “more sociological-ideology-critical approach (fifties, sixties and seventies)”.

In the main part of the History of German film criticism Steinitz puts a film-historical introduction before each epoch, which is more disturbing than illuminating due to redundancies. Steinitz lets film criticism begin with the invention of film at the end of the 19th century and shows the shift in interest from technical sensation to content based on the change from attraction cinema to the institutionalization of film. The demand for a formal and narrative emancipation of film from literature and theater was reflected in the progressive professionalization of film critics, who achieved a respectable place in the features section with continuous reporting and individual reviews. Due to their economic dependency, the cinema and film magazines founded years earlier were more of a mouthpiece for the cinema industry or cinema reformer than places of free thought in their early years.

It is a bit strange that Steinitz describes the outbreak of the First World War as the end of early film criticism, because questions about cinematic aesthetics and morals - in the context of current circumstances - continued to be asked. Steinitz jumps into the year 1919, where he covered the first phase of film in the Weimar Republic until 1924 with the success of expressionist film, the second until 1929 as the phase of the greatest cinematic boom, and the third phase until 1933 when he switched from silent films to talkies increasing political influence. He refers to critics and works who defined the film from an aesthetic and sociological point of view and also addressed the increasingly virulent phenomenon of mass culture. He names Georg Lukács, Béla Balázs, Rudolf Arnheim, Kurt Pinthus, Siegfried Kracauer and others.

The increasing political appropriation of film in the 1930s ultimately became a point of attack for critical dissenting voices, until it was systematically eliminated when the National Socialists came to power and film criticism was brought into line under the leadership of the party. Some film critics such as Kracauer, Pinthus, Hans Siemsen or Willy Haas emigrated before Goebbels ‘“ Art Viewer Decree ”of 1936, which aimed to fit all reporting into National Socialist ideology. Steinitz repeatedly refers to Goebbels' position of power, which he describes as a "one-man-show", and with his diary also gives examples of his reflections on film criticism and theory.

Filmmaking in the post-war period was shaped by the pursuit of social rehabilitation and consolidation, the most successful product of which was the Heimatfilm. According to Steinitz, this was also expressed in the lack of serious film criticism. As an exception, he pays greater attention to the critic Gunter Groll and sets the stage for the strengthening of cinematic claims with the founding of the magazine Movie review in 1957. With the Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962 and the grouping of "New German Films", film criticism received impulses from left-wing intellectual formations (Frankfurt School) in the 1960s and 1970s, which were directed against the ideologization of film and supported auteur films. In this context, Steinitz grants a formulation of standards: According to the magazine, a contemporary film review was required Movie review less affirmation, more debate, a film-theoretical and film-historical contextualization, the primacy of the statement about the form and the consideration of the production conditions of the film to be viewed.

In the 1980s, the decline of German film and cinema was feared due to financial bottlenecks and increased competition from television. The film criticism of the time was permeated by a generational conflict between the attitudes of the socially critical left and an emerging subjectivism that placed the personal film experience at the center of the assessment. Steinitz traces this change in detail using the example of a lecture series held at the Free University of Berlin in the summer semester of 1989 and also works out some of the attitudes of the “critical school” (Karsten Witte, Gertrud Koch, Wolf Donner) more clearly. He brings in the subjectivist opposing positions with Andreas Kilb, Claudius Seidl, Günter Rohrbach and, with restrictions, Frieda Grafe, whose “open, associative” style, however, defies clear classification.

Steinitz devotes a separate short chapter to film criticism in the GDR and church film criticism, before going back to the 1990s and 2000s in more detail. The conflict between the economic interests of the film industry and editorial independence, which had been smoldering from the start, has now turned into a veritable dilemma, as the increase in film-specific platforms that followed digitization led to an ever greater and less transparent influence on film marketing. Film reporting in the print media faced competition from online services and film critics from laypeople. Many names of critics are mentioned here, but no personality (except perhaps Michael Althen) and no text does Steinitz allow more space than a short statement.

David Steinitz closes his History of German film criticism with the question already posed at the beginning about the “end of film criticism” or about the usefulness and necessity of film criticism and ultimately owes an answer in the form of an analytical approach. Despite the fact that its text becomes a little more focused and the connections become more comprehensible with increasing chronological progress, the book stands out due to its narrow perspective and undifferentiated presentation, which lacks methodological guidelines and fundamental distinctions between the types, mechanisms and motives of criticism and judgment. Steinitz uses the term “film criticism” without a previous definition for a judgment or an evaluation of the phenomenon of film as well as of a particular film. The lack of theoretical foundation and analytical differentiation are particularly evident in the thematization of the “Third Reich”, as fundamental motives such as Aryanization and anti-Semitism as well as structural mechanisms of appropriation and exclusion remain vague or unclear. This is not least due to the way of reasoning, for example when the “Art Viewer Decree”, among other things. is justified with the following rhetorical question: “From the National Socialist point of view, this decree was only logical, because why should an authoritarian regime bring the film industry under its control, but let the film press freely criticize?” No less irritating: “From Goebbels' personal point of view was out the prohibition is necessary in order to be able to defend his, the Reich Propaganda Minister's opinion, as universally valid. ”The vagueness of the terms and formulations used - what is the relationship between“ personal point of view ”and“ opinion of the Reich Propaganda Minister ”within his political function? - makes some statements appear questionable. Steinitz's choice of words is annoying, not least when he sometimes describes the statements of other scientists as “thin”, “conditionally suitable” or as “shackling” and “tangling”. Finally, the inadequate indexing of primary sources and archive material, which is also primarily cited from secondary texts, is disappointing.

At the end of my reading of Steinitz's book, there is the question of the “walking cart”. According to Kant, the supports of such a carriage consist of comfort and a lack of courage, which the author cannot assume because of the great undertaking that such a work in itself represents. The wish remains: not only in a criticism, but also in a dissertation, its author in the Kantian sense should be concerned with shaking up the “thoughtless big bunch”.

Martina Zerovnik, 23.10.2015
[email protected]