The book of ‘The Film’, part 1

4th February 2013

One afternoon in Canterbury recently I stumbled upon The Chaucer Bookshop, a second-hand treasure house that I realised I had last entered as a schoolboy some forty years ago. I was delighted to find that it was thriving in this age of Amazon, and I was thrilled to discover several books about film and television (the only ones I in any sense collect) that I had never come across before. Foremost among these was a handsome 1948 volume from The Falcon Press: The Film: Its Economic, Social and Artistic Problems by Georg Schmidt, Werner Schmalenbach and Peter Bachlin, and with Hermann Eidenbenz (the links may need Google Translate) as its art editor. Printed on heavy, shiny paper, this is an extraordinary volume entirely deserving of the discussion of its genesis, its analysis and its truly remarkable design that I aim to develop in this post and a follow-up.

The Film was first an exhibition, titled The Film Yesterday and Today, which was presented in Switzerland for the first Basel Film Week in 1943. This was then shown in Berne and Zurich, and after the war in Brussels and Amsterdam. The first section of the show comprised 64 panels which became the basis for the book (there were also parts about educational and amateur films, and about photographic and projection equipment).

Cover of 'The Film'

The book’s Foreword makes clear that it is more than a copy of the panels of the exhibition. These were all revised for inclusion, new images were added and everything was significantly redesigned. And it is the design that, in part at least, accounts for the splendour of the book. Although my wholly inadequate scans fail to do justice to the pages, many of them are exquisitely laid out with images and captions carefully positioned within a great deal of white space.

Again, the Foreword stresses that ‘every plate is the result of careful collaboration’ but the roles of those involved are also detailed. The original conception is given to Georg Schmidt, who was an art historian and critic, and librarian of the Basel Crafts Museum. In 1939 he was appointed director of the Kunstmuseum in Basel where he was a successful advocate of European modernism.

‘The presentation of the artistic problems of the film’ is credited to Werner Schmalenbach, who was at the time of the exhibition a 23-year-old ethnographer but who later became a distinguished museum director and author, it is claimed, of 150 further books. And the third co-author is Peter Bachlin, who at the time was organising, with the help of Schmidt and Schmalenbach, the nascent Swiss Film Archive which opened for business in Basel in the same year as the exhibition of The Film. (The archive seems to have run for five years in Basel before the city authorities, suspecting it of a leftist bias, cut off all funding. The collection was then transferred to the rather more welcoming city of Lausanne.)

The book’s designer was Hermann Eidenbenz, a graphic design artist from Germany who trained in Switzerland and with his brothers Reinhold and Willi established a commercial studio in Basel. He is remembered as the designer of fonts, including Clarendon, and of both German and Swiss banknotes, as well as modernist posters, logos and more. He did a great job for The Film.

Above is the right-hand page of the book’s opening lay-out; on the left-hand page is the same title, What is the Film? and a still from the closing sequence of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) in which the Tramp and Paulette Goddard are walking away from us down a road into the future. On this page, in a juxtaposition of text and image worthy of Godard, we have

The film is motion / sound / colour photography

The film is not [a still from an unidentified film of Goetze’s operetta Schach dem Konig] photographed theatre

The film is [a still from Pudovkin’s Mother (1926)] a pictorial art

Another page below, the right-hand sheet of 25. The Film Actor and Reality, is a further example of the innovative design (on the left-hand page is a still from John Ford’s Tobacco Road (1941)). The text reads

In the good film actor / humanity / life / everyday / reality /plays itself.

The stills, from top to bottom, are from David Lean and Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve (1942), Eisenstein’s The General Line (1929), Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des brumes (1938) and The General Line again.

The Film: Actor and Reality page

Beyond the design – and lay-out after lay-out is striking and distinctive – The Film is fascinating for its understanding of the medium at this moment. The analysis, as I will explore in a further post tomorrow, is fundamentally Marxist, with all of the ills of the film ascribed ultimately to bank and industrial capital and to the international monopoly of eight American production companies.

Film in aesthetic terms is understood as an art of the image and of montage, and one of the text’s strongest strands is its engagement of the dialogue between film and the earlier arts of image-making and of the theatre. I want to consider the latter in more detail tomorrow, but here is a page that explores the relationship between film and painting.

The Film: Painting and Film

The text reads as follows:

Painting by 1800 [Ingres’ Portrait of M. Bertin] gives a complete but motionless representation of reality

Photography (from 1830 on) [1860 ‘photograph by Bentall] gives a complete but motionless representation of reality

Painting from 1860 to 1890 (Impressionism) [Manet’s Horserace at Longchamps] gives an incomplete but moving representation of reality

The film (from 1890 on) [a still from Fritz Lang’s The Western Union (sic) (1941)] gives a complete and moving representation of reality.

We might today question both the ontology and the teleology but there is a wonderful clarity and confidence to this, as there is to so much else in The Film. More of which, tomorrow.

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