I have long had an affection for moving pictures of people sitting. More so even than depictions of walking, I’m quite sure that it is an axiom of the cinema.
Naturally, as with all cinematic phenomena, it is a holdover from other, purer art forms. In photography and painting too, sitting is also an axiom, practically a genre in itself. On the stage a sedentary character is often the crux of a scene emotionally, an audience surrogate who listens to the other characters as we do the performance. Sitting has been overlooked by historians of the cinema no doubt because it lacks the stylishness of a stride. I would contend that, to pluck an example from the air, the sequence in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo in which the main characters sit and sing two hammy songs back to back is every bit the equal of Rosalind Russell’s celebrated gait in His Girl Friday.
But far be it from me to paint a general history of sitting. No, that would take a lifetime—even if it were confined to the playpen of the cinema. On the contrary, what I was struck by was my visceral reaction to three magnificently miniature instances of it across two rather similar, quite forgotten, and indeed quite hopeless films that played in the 2018 Berlinale’s retrospective sidebar. There is nothing like a good film print from the 1930s to awake in you an awareness of your own corporeality. It need not be a masterpiece, far from it; as far as I’m concerned, the shoddier and less distinguished the better. The movies in question, both of which, to the best of my knowledge, are available only in this form (that is to say, archival film prints at the Deutsche Kinemathek), are both ethnographic documentaries from the dawn of the so-called sound era.
In Menschen in Bush (People in the Bush, 1930), a duo of German filmmakers travel to the African colony of Togo to record local customs and traditions and create a simulacrum of daily life there. It’s fun to see the producers of this rather artless film fail in various ways to represent the place; swathes of the documentary are given over to simple shots of people walking in the streets, preparing food, or to babies with giant bellies picking their toes in the sunlight, all blanketed by an orchestral soundtrack. The more guileful sequences, such as one involving the battering of a drum by a local that is intercut with the crushing of yams and bleeting intertitles (“Essen!”), are touching attempts to translate contemporary theories of editing, like those of the Russian formalists, to a new ethnographic form. I have little doubt that for the majority of viewers, much of this movie’s interest comes from these sequences, as well as from the time-capsule quality of seeing a panorama of Togolese habits c. 1930.
But charlatan that I am, I was much more interested in the prelude to these passages, in which the “Governor of Togo”—a white German, naturally—pontificates from atop a dusty, uncomfortable-looking seat. He reads aloud from a quivering sheet of paper a laundry list of colonialist clichés about the innate superiority of Europeans and the primitivism of the colonized. We were braced for it. Ten minutes before, the whole room groaned at an announcement that the speech we were about to hear was “of course politically incorrect according to our standards today.” I was similarly taken with a similar monologue in Im Auto durch zwei Welten (Across Two Worlds by Car, 1927-1931), which I saw later that evening. That film is also a travelogue, following an epic journey across Asia, the Americas, and Europe by car (and indeed the narrator later zealously declares that “a great German automobile has triumphed over Steppe, desert, virgin forest…,” revealing the filmmakers’ true motive). The person doing the speaking this time is Clärenore Stinnes, the driver of said car, the producer of the film, and a professional race car driver.
What moves me in this sequence and its striking analogue in Menschen in Bush, is its documentary quality, its staggering realness and lack of pretense, in contrast to the more generic forms of the travelogue sequences. Resting in his chair at a slight diagonal to the camera, the Governor in Menschen in Bush resembles the protagonist of the Lumières’ masterpiece Transformation by Hats (1895), who is positioned in a similar way as he tries on various hats for the audience, conjured from just out of shot. While experiencing this thudding oratory, one is able to peer at the dust on the man’s shoulders, the creases in his jacket, the contours of his high forehead, the delicate metal rim of his glasses, the grime on his teeth. There’s a great moment in Menschen in Bush where Stinnes calls on her cameraman, Carl-Axel Söderström, to speak. A blunt edit conjures him like a George Méliès demon from the air. Unlike Stinnes, he does not look at the camera; in fact, he behaves as if the camera is further to the right and stares there, directing his words into presumably empty space. I was thrilled. Once the film switched gears and showed mainly the travel footage, I was less enchanted, even though the sights—examples include cloud-capped Mt. Fuji as well as a group of hunters eating a deer’s warm innards straight from its belly—were spectacular.
Still, as I left the cinema and walked through the cold night and over to Friedrichstraße to catch the bus home, it was not these sights that were lodged in my mind. Instead, I thought only of Stinnes’ jangled collar, caught up in the overlay of her jacket. I alighted the bus. The sheet from which the Governor read was there with me. I was thinking of Stinnes blinking in the dazzling studio lights as her words, pre-planned, flatly intoned, and dry as bone, caught in her mouth. The sheer reality of it was praiseworthy; that for me is cinema. I took my seat.