Kafka Goes to the Movies

"A mad and beautiful project, which sends the reader spinning and tumbling into one of the great artistic minds of the last century. Zischler's book is a gem."—Paul Auster
"A charmingly eccentric little work of obsession."—James Poniewozik, New York Times Book Review
"This valuable little book gives us a Kafka firmly situated in his time and merely deepens the mystery of his remarkable work."—Carter Scholz, Bookforum
"Brings an altogether fresh perspective to the life of Kafka, always an absorbing subject, and offers a fine look at a fascinating era in cinematic history."—Library Journal
An excerpt from
Kafka Goes to the Movies
by Hanns Zischler

Torn Away, or Lützow's Wild Chase

In September 1912, in the margins of a stormy entry in his diary, Kafka abruptly makes mention of a visit to the cinema. The weeks before had been filled with exciting inner and outer events. On August 13, in the Brod family home, he had met the Berlin office worker Felice Bauer—and immediately he produces, as he had earlier with Alice Rehberger, a minutely observed photographic signal that immediately takes on the solidity of a "judgment": When I arrived at Brod's on the 13th, she was sitting at the table and yet seemed to me like a servant . . . Bony, empty face, which wore its emptiness openly. Bare throat. Blouse tossed over. . . . Almost broken nose. Blonde, rather stiff unalluring hair, strong chin. As I was sitting down, I looked at her more closely for the first time, when I sat, I had already formed an immutable judgment.

In November, as Kafka writes to Felice Bauer, he will introduce a new daily regimen. The schematic character of the new schedule is less surprising than the happiness he hopes to achieve by writing: My way of life is arranged solely around writing and if it undergoes changes, then only in order to be better suited to writing, for time is short, my powers are few, and the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and one has to try to squeeze through with tricks when it can't be done with a lovely, straightforward life...From 8 until 2 or 2:30 office, until 3 or 3:30 dinner, after that sleep in bed...until 7:30, then 10 minutes exercises, naked, with open window, then an hour taking a walk...then evening meal with the family...then at 10:30...sit down to write and remain there as long as strength, desire, and happiness permit until 1, 2, 3 o'clock, once even until 6 in the morning.

During the night of September 23-24, on a train, he had written the short story "The Judgment" in his journal notebook and already the next morning had read it aloud to his sisters. On September 25, finally, after the furor surrounding "The Judgment," he is ready to recommence work on Amerika. But like Odysseus, he resists the lure of the sirens: "Forcibly prevented myself from writing." He reads "The Judgment" in his circle of friends and notes, "The indubitable character of the story is confirmed." In the evening, finally, after succumbing to writing like an addict, he can think of no other antidote than the cinematograph. This evening tore myself away from writing. Cinematograph at the Landestheater. Box seat. Fräulein Oplatka, who was once pursued by a clergyman. She arrived home completely drenched in a cold sweat. Danzig. Körner's life. The horses. The white horse. The smoke from the gunpowder. Lüzow's wild chase.

A line in ink across the page, and Karl Rossman's fate takes its course.

In the morning edition of Prague's German-language daily in Bohemia, the following ad appeared on September 25, 1912:

German Landestheater / Popular Comedies / (Scientific cinematographic showings) / Wednesday, September 25, 1912 / Three showings: I. Showing 2:00 / II. Showing 4:30 / III. Showing 7:30 / Program: / 1. Strange Insects / 2. The Island of Ceylon / 3. Danzig / 4. In Remembrance of the Birthday of Theodor Körner: Theodor Körner, His Life and Writing—Early Years—the Student—the Playwright and His Bride—the Freedom Fighter.

Schedule of the German Landestheater: Saturday, September 28: V. Popular performance at reduced prices, Eva—Sunday, September 29: VI. Popular performance at reduced prices: The Talisman.

This ad, which at first glance does not appear unusual, testifies to the severe crisis that befell the theater—not only in Prague—in the years between 1911 and 1914. The best-known German-language theater, the Landestheater, also known as the Nostiz-Theater, suffered a massive decline in audience numbers due to the enormous popularity of the cinema.

Looking back at the difficult period, the chronicler of the German theaters in Prague, Richard Rosenheim, complains in 1938, in the plaintive tone of conservative cultural criticism, about the "Americanization of Central Europe":

Problem years.—Despite such peak achievements and despite the fact that opera and the theater approached even their day-to-day work with the greatest diligence and the most profound seriousness, the years from 1911 to 1914 were difficult problem years. Those who, like the writer of these lines, were active at that time in the direction of great theaters, know why. These were the ten years in which the peace of Europe was in its death throes. A tremendous tension, the premonition that something terrible was ineluctably approaching, had taken hold of the populace, and as an antidote they sought distraction and oblivion at any price. It was the era of the dance contests, the beginning of the cultural Americanization of Central Europe and, hence, the era of empty cash registers for every serious-minded theater. This was no different in Prague than in Hamburg and Berlin, in Vienna and Paris...

The awakening came too late.—For three years, Heinrich Teweles directed the German-language theater in Prague. The premiere of Parsifal, the brilliant upbeat of the fourth year, was not a bad omen for the future. But the creeping crisis in the theater's business conditions did not allow the director to enjoy this momentary success for very long. Until now, Teweles had seen the origin of the crisis primarily in terms of difficulties resulting from the technical backwardness of the Landestheater...But the really productive utilization of the old theater remained a problem even after Teweles at last succeeded in having electric lights installed in the Landestheater. What had been a sensation in 1888 was an outmoded aperçu in 1911. Teweles, however, believed so firmly in Edison as the savior that, in his efforts to draw larger audiences to the Landestheater—the venerable theater on the Obstmarkt that had been consecrated by Mozart's genius—he came up with the odd notion of installing a cinema. His energy succeeded in realizing even this idea, against all resistance from above and below, and thus the first German cinema in Prague actually made its home, for several years, in the Landestheater. Naturally, Teweles adhered strictly to the guidelines that had been established when he received his permission and offered the public only culture films. But for this very reason the anticipated business success did not materialize, and a few years later, after great sacrifices for which he was only partially compensated, Teweles quietly allowed the cinema at Landestheater to disappear again.

Kafka's excitedly flickering stenogram describing the opening night recalls the tumultuous nightmare of Paris. And by including the fearful episode of Fräulein Oplatka, he approaches melodrama.

Danzig has survived only in description. Theodor Körner, on the other hand, has been preserved as a film. Danzig adheres to the "strict guidelines" for enjoyable culture films that Teweles preferred. That description of the film's content reflects the bombastically pedagogical tone appropriate to a Bildungsreise: Danzig. Near the mouth of the powerful Vistula River, only a few kilometers from the gulf of the Baltic Sea known as the Bay of Danzig, lies the charming city of Danzig. Once a mighty Hanseatic city, Danzig remains an important mercantile center even today, when world trade is focused more on the North Sea. Its harbor, which reaches into the center of the city, is one of the most important in the German empire. Danzig is quite remarkable in other ways, as well, especially for its architecture. If we gaze down upon the city from the tower of the splendid Gothic Rathaus, which stems from the 15th century, our attention, as the illustration shows, is drawn to the powerfully medieval style in which both private and the public buildings are constructed. We see numerous towerlike houses with tall, closely spaced windows and delicate, arabesquelike rooftops reaching upward; in particular, the Long Market, which lies directly below us, displays these characteristic features in purest form. Continuing our visit, we arrive next at the so-called Crane Gate, a massive Gothic structure, then at the monument to Kaiser Wilhelm I, in front of the High Gate. Evening has fallen, and we stroll down to the banks of the Mattlau River, where we admire the colorful splendor of the setting sun, which glints from the waves. As our visit draws to a close, we have an opportunity to get acquainted with the inhabitants as they go about their daily chores and conclude today's walk, which has been interesting and enjoyable in every respect, with a view of the oldest structure in Danzig, the Bakers' Workhouse.

In Theodor Körner, we have to do with a sentimental, sensational film with a perceptibly nationalistic tendency—the ad proclaims loudly that it is being shown "on the anniversary of the Battle of Sedan!!!" On August 31 of the year 1912, this is a minor sensation—with anonymous protagonists. The wild equestrian stunts are spectacular, as Kafka happily notes.

In the months that follow, no visits to the cinema are recorded—as, indeed, Kafka only writes about his cinematic experiences very sporadically and hardly ever in any systematic way.

Felice Bauer has entered less into his daily life than into a boundless correspondence with him. During the following months, she is the recipient of the most important communications concerning his abruptly vacillating impulses, his crises, his moments of unhappiness. Kafka makes her into the great screen onto which he projects his mostly late-night letters at a steadily accelerating pace. To her, above all, he reports on his progress and the difficulties of writing the novel The Man Who Disappeared (Amerika), on the creation and the first reading of "The Metamorphosis," on his enthusiasm for the Yiddish theater. "The whole Yiddish theater is lovely, last year I probably attended these performances twenty times, and the German theater perhaps not at all." Along with the magical gestural world of "dramatist" and "explainer" Jizchak Löwy and his troupe, the new cinematograph at the Landestheater held a greater attractive power for Kafka than the theater itself. The moviegoer and theater deserter confirms Herr Teweles's most tormenting fears. Always anxious, half asking for advice, half playing with this attitude, Kafka initiates Felice into all the business of his life. He is in love, quite evidently and with thoroughly conflicting emotions, and the most exciting aspect of this high-strung, panicky lovesickness may be the fact that it is possible to write so many things to the object of one's love and—with gentle pressure—expect and demand that she will respond in kind.


Copyright notice: ©2003 Excerpted from pages 33-43 of Kafka Goes to the Movies by Hanns Zischler, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2003 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of University of Chicago Press.

Hanns Zischler
Kafka Goes to the Movies
Translated by Susan H. Gillespie
©2003; 160 pages, 392 duotones
Cloth $30.00 ISBN: 0-226-98671-3
For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Kafka Goes to the Movies.

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