Fiction and the ‘Unrepresentable’:
Translated by David Buist
After more than fifty years of
experience as a film critic, a certain hypothesis about the basic ontology of
the cinematic medium has gradually taken shape in my mind. Although I have
already made some allusions to this hypothesis in previous publications, I have
yet to make a full statement of it. Now would seem to be the time to do so.
Stated briefly, my hypothesis is
that the medium of film has not yet truly incorporated sound as an essential
component of its composition. This statement applies generally to all types of
film, whether produced for entertainment or for artistic ends, irrespective of
the form in which they have been consumed throughout the history of the medium
stretching back over one hundred years. Another way of expressing this
hypothesis is to say that the so-called talkie is in fact no more than a
variant of the silent film. The transition from the silent film to films with
sound has to be understood not only from the perspective of technological
progress. At least until the end of the 20th Century, no attempt was made to
have the camera function as a device for the recording of sound. The camera
continued to function exclusively as a device for the reproduction of moving
images. Meanwhile, sound was captured by an entirely separate recording device.
As I will explain in more detail below, the development of the talkie was
predicated on the artificial synchronisation of the separately recorded
elements of sound and image. To this extent, it has remained a highly unstable
medium of expression.
There are at least two senses in
which the synchronisation of sound and image in film can be described as
‘artificial’. First, this synchronisation is achieved by the very ‘unmodern’
device of striking clapsticks in front of the camera, and therefore cannot be
regarded as ‘natural’ in any sense. Second, even in the absence of such
artificial synchronisation, it is still perfectly possible to produce a
convincing movie simply from a sequence of silent images. Film scenes to which
sound has been added after the event are accepted by viewers as normal. For
example, hardly anyone would seriously believe that the sound of car horns
accompanying an indoor scene of a Hitchcock film was actually produced by cars
driving around on the streets outside. The sound world of cinema, with its
emphasis on artificial effects, created a kind of ‘virtual reality’ long before
the advent of digital technology.
The camera and sound recorder
developed as two entirely separate technologies, with no consideration of how
image and sound might be synchronised. Indeed, synchronisation only became
readily achievable in the 1950s following the development of the Nagra tape
recorder. The Nagra, which means ‘it will record’ in Polish, was produced in
Switzerland by a company founded by a Polish émigré. It is highly significant
that such a technology was not first created in Hollywood.
It was well beyond the middle of
the 20th Century before the recording of sound on site became a general
practice in movie production. An illustrative case is that of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (1959). No sound
engineers were present during the shooting of this film. The sound that now
accompanies all showings of this film was created in the studio by dubbing. It
is said that during filming Godard would shout instructions to the actors in a
manner no different from the days of silent film. The soundtrack of Kiju Yoshida’s Good for Nothing (1960) was likewise
studio dubbed, a practice which Yoshida continued well into the 1970s. Another
striking example is Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s vivid documentary film Minamata (1972) about the devastating
health effects of mercury poisoning in a southern Japanese city. This was shot
using a 16 mm camera that did not have the capacity to record sound
simultaneously. The film nevertheless succeeded in bringing this now notorious
case of industrial pollution to public attention through its portrayal of the
horrific effects of mercury poisoning on the bodily movements and facial
expressions of people living in the vicinity of the Chisso factory. Sound was
added in the studio after the completion of filming, but this created no sense
of incongruity for viewers. It is interesting to note that the Nouvelle Vague,
which transformed cinematography both in France and Japan in the 1960s and
1970s, occurred on the back of a set of techniques fundamentally unchanged
since the days of silent film.
In some film cultures, notably
that of Italy, it took a long time before synchronous recording of sound and
image became generally accepted. In such cases, filming meant above all the
capture of a visual subject, while sound belonged entirely to the domain of
post-production. Almost all the masterpieces of Italian neo-realism, including
those by Roberto Rossellini, had their sound added afterwards through a process
of post-synchronisation. The reverse situation can be observed in the case of
Indian musical films, where actors mime in synch to a pre-recorded soundtrack
recorded by specialist playback singers, thus obviating any need to record the
actors’ own voices. Even great masterpieces, such as Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957), were filmed in this way,
as indeed were almost all the Hollywood musicals. This illustrates the fact
that cinema has yet to make any decisive break with its earliest manifestation
as the silent film.
Before pursuing my argument any
further, it is necessary to emphasise that my hypothesis that all movies are
but variants of the silent film is entirely unrelated to any nostalgic desire
to return to the idyllic days before sound. For the record, however, I have to
admit a personal predilection for silent movies. I enjoy nothing more than watching
films by David Wark Griffith, Louis Feuillade, Eric von Stroheim and F.W.
Murnau, most of whose work was produced before the advent of talkies. I also
like to watch – preferably projected on a screen, and in many cases even
without any obtrusive piano accompaniment – films featuring the likes of Buster
Keaton, Harry Carey and Janet Gaynor, all of whom were masters of facial
expression and bodily movement. My hypothesis is nevertheless based strictly on
an analysis of historical conditions irrespective of any such personal
predilections. It is founded not only on the facts of film history but also
makes reference to the more general distribution of knowledge in society since
the 19th Century. In order to appreciate this hypothesis, it is not necessary
to know the history of film in detail, but it does require some understanding
of the conditions under which film came into being and how it developed. This I
will now briefly describe.
As everyone knows, cinema was born
in 1895 as a result of the combination of various technologies already existing
in the 19th Century. Opinion is divided as regards the precise details, but for
the purposes of this article I begin with the invention of the cinematograph by
the brothers Lumière. The earliest films were of course without sound,
including Sortie d’usine and the
other nine short films premiered at the Grand Café in Paris in 1895. Cinema
remained for a long time an essentially silent medium, even as it was developed
and commercialised by people other than the Lumières. The basic technology
underlying cinematography was photography, which had developed and gained
popularity since the mid 19th Century. The main innovation of the cinematograph
was to mechanically reproduce the movements of subjects that had previously
been captured only instantaneously, thus adding a temporal dimension to
photography. The resulting medium of film provided a means to create fictional
narratives visually by cutting, pasting and rearranging images of real scenes.
To the extent that it did this without reference to the traditional Western
aesthetic norms developed through epic poetry and drama since ancient Greece,
film came to be known by some as a ‘bastard of representation’.
The mid 1920s can be regarded as
the heyday of cinema. Many of the leading directors of that time made films
that brought to light unseen tensions in everyday life through minute
observation. I refer here not only to the avant-garde works of Sergei
Eisenstein, but also to other representatives of pre-Stalinist Soviet cinema,
including Abram Room and Boris Barnet. Another feature of this age was the
abundant exploration of suspense, exemplified above all by Fritz Lang’s 1928 Spione (even more so than his more
famous Metropolis, 1927). Film
creators active during this period achieved very high levels of creativity in
the treatment of their chosen material, as is illustrated by John Ford’s
westerns, Raoul Walsh’s historical dramas, Ernst Lubitsch’s erotic comedies,
Buster Keaton’s comedies, Daisuke Ito’s sword-fight dramas and Frank Borzage’s
melodramas, among many other equally worthy names I cannot mention here. It was
during this period that film emerged as a new art form offering forms of
expression unavailable through literature.
Talkies arrived on the scene not
long after the heyday of the silent movies described above. Nowadays we
automatically associate the word ‘film’ with a medium that combines both image
and sound, and silent films tend to be viewed as no more than a transitional
stage toward the contemporary cinema. We tend to think that narrative
necessarily implies sound and therefore see silent films as somehow incomplete
and inferior. However, it is my opinion that the era of the silent movie,
lasting three decades, should be viewed as a decisive phase in human history,
no less significant than those tragic events that simultaneously marked the
20th Century as an age of mass slaughter. My hypothesis is an attempt to
address the pervasive failure of humanity to recognise the full significance of
Despite the fact that we have come
to automatically assume that films naturally include sound, I still maintain
that all films are but variants of the silent movie. In effect, I want to
banish the concept of the ‘audiovisual’ from discourse about film. As far as
film is concerned, the ‘audiovisual’ is a pure fiction with no foundation in
reality. Cinema differs in this respect from television, which, never having
had a silent period, was predicated from its inception on the fiction of the
audiovisual. To this extent, the situation of television as a medium is
As already noted, the camera and
sound recorder developed separately as devices for recording signs in their own
respective domains. Besides never achieving a state of natural synchronicity,
they can also be said to exist in a relation of mutual exclusivity. The history
of film is the history of this mutual exclusivity. It was in the 20th Century
that the unending struggle between image and sound became manifest on the
technological level. Humanity has yet to find a way to finally resolve this
struggle. This technological struggle between image and sound can be observed
on a number of different levels. In Gramophone,
Film, Typewriter Friedrich Kittler (1986) recounts the story of how Edison,
on completing the first mass producible sound recording/playback device,
immediately brought in a photographer. This famous anecdote illustrates how the
moment of the gramophone’s invention could only be recorded visually. This
imbalance between the technology of visual reproduction and the technology of
aural reproduction remained throughout the 20th Century.
Further insight into the struggle
between sound and image can be gained by considering the case of Stéphane
Mallarmé. We in the 21st Century have a clear visual image of this French poet
thanks to several portrait photographs taken of him by the photographer Félix
Nadar. On the other hand, no aural record remains that would even suggest to us
what qualities his voice might have had. Both film and sound recording had come
into existence by the later years of Mallarmé’s life, but the chance to record
the sound of his voice was forever lost. We will never actually hear him
reciting ‘Un coup de dés’. All we have is the second-hand account by Paul
Valéry who described the poet’s voice as ‘low, monotonous, seeking no
affectation, almost as if he were talking to himself’.
This is a direct reflection of the
historical fact that the technology of image reproduction became ‘democratised’
far earlier than the technology of sound recording. Writers such as Maxime Du
Camp and Émile Zola were able to access the technology of photography a mere
ten years after its invention. Likewise, in the world of moving pictures,
someone as young and inexperienced as Sacha Guitry was able to shoot an amateur
movie (Ceaux de chez nous, 1914/5)
featuring such famous people as Anatole France, Sarah Bernhardt and Auguste
Rodin only twenty years after the invention of film.
Around the time of the outbreak of
the First World War, Hollywood was little more than a colony dominated by what
was then the main centre of the American film industry on the east coast.
Amateur moviemaking has a long history stretching back at least to the same
time period. In contrast, the technology of sound recording remained the
exclusive preserve of specialist technicians for much longer. Indeed, it could
be said that sound engineers carefully defended their monopoly over the
reproduction of sound from encroachment by amateurs. This monopoly remained
intact until the popularisation of the tape recorder in the 1960s.
Democratisation of sound recording thus took an inordinately long time to be
realised. The reason for this is not so much technological as ideological. The
aforementioned case of Mallarmé clearly illustrates how the voice continued to
have a quality of irreproducible transience. One can even say that reproducing
the voice was seen as a taboo to be contravened only with the uttermost care
and sensitivity. This ‘prohibition of the voice’ was a legacy of the era of the
silent film. Those thirty years from the end of the 19th Century to the mid
1920s had a lasting impact on human history and cannot be dismissed as merely a
transition to what followed.
The taboo against reproducing the
voice was nothing other than a reflection of the supremacy still granted to the
voice in the structure of human knowledge. Unlike images, which were themselves
already reproductions, the voice was identified with the body itself.
Reproducing the voice therefore implied the loss of corporality. As if to
pre-empt any such risk of disembodiment, the voice remained hidden in the realm
of the intangible. This, more than anything, was the reason why amateurs were
barred from access to the technology of sound reproduction for so long.
I cannot say with absolute
certainty that this was why the voice of Mallarmé reciting his own verse was
never recorded. There is no doubt, however, about the existence of a certain
force obstructing the democratisation of sound recording. In his early critique
of the ‘metaphysics of presence’, Jacques Derrida (1976) maintained that the
voice could only exist as such in its ‘presence to itself’. In view of this,
one should not assume that the democratisation of sound recording was achieved
simply through the popularisation of the gramophone. It is true that factory
workers in the Fordist production system acquired the ability to listen to
records in their own homes, but this was only possible after the art of
recording had been entrusted to an exclusive group of professionals. The
popularisation of music through inexpensively reproduced records reduced even
further the chance of amateurs to access the technology of sound recording.
It is therefore possible that the
centrality granted to the spoken word under the ‘metaphysics of presence’ acted
in concert with the early recording industry to impose a severe prohibition of
the voice. While amateurs and professionals were granted almost equal
opportunities to engage in photography or filming, no such equality pertained
in the domain of sound reproduction. Thus, the era of the silent film left its
lasting mark on the whole of the 20th Century.
Talkies would not have eclipsed
silent films had it not been for the organised management of sound reproduction
by professional audio technicians. However, the position occupied by such
specialists in the world of cinema was different from that which they enjoyed
in the record industry. In the process of film production, the demands of
cameramen always took precedence over those of sound engineers. This points
towards the conclusion that talkies simply perpetuated the prohibition of the
voice that had begun in the era of silent film.
This dominance of specialists in
image reproduction over specialists in sound recording is reflected in a number
of ways. Let us consider first the issue of camera noise. The early film sound
engineers were engaged in a constant battle with the loud noise produced by
camera motors. Sound shields attached to cameras in an attempt to counteract
this problem were known as ‘blimps’, after the airships of the same name that
were popular in the 1930s. Although they did eliminate camera noise, these
devices had the disadvantage of being so cumbersome and heavy that they restricted
camera movement. As a result, even in the present day, it has become accepted
that camera noise in films will only be reduced in relative terms, not
eliminated entirely. In a photograph showing the scene during the filming of an
early talkie by Yasujiro Ozu, the camera can be seen rather comically wrapped
in a thick cotton futon. This vividly illustrates the difficulty involved in
the simultaneous use of two fundamentally incompatible technologies.
Meanwhile, in instances where the
technology of sound recording interfered with the taking of images, it was the
latter that took precedence. Cameramen were always allowed to shoot from the
best possible position, while sound engineers often had to accommodate by
placing their microphones in less than ideal positions. The booms on which
microphones were suspended were never allowed to be visible in the film. This
severely limited where sound engineers could place their microphones and often
compromised the quality of the sound. The sound engineer was thus treated as a
subordinate to the cameraman and was forced to operate under severely
constrained circumstances. Even the lighting specialist took precedence over
the sound engineer, since the slightest shadow of a microphone on a filmed
subject or background was not allowed. One only has to read the memoirs of
Fumio Hashimoto (Hashimoto and Ueno, 1996), who was sound engineer for Kenji
Mizoguchi, to appreciate the difficulties of recording sound for film.
Another humiliation suffered by
the sound engineer was that his work, however outstanding, could be entirely
ignored should the film ever find its way into the export market. In many
countries, foreign films would be dubbed in the local language, thus displacing
the original soundtrack. Indeed, such restrictions on sound still pertain to
the present day. The camera continues to dominate in a manner hardly changed
since the days of silent film. This is as true of the mass-produced Hollywood
blockbusters as it is of high-quality small-scale productions by such directors
as Frederick Wiseman and Eric Rohmer. This is the reality addressed by my
hypothesis that all movies are but variants on the silent film.
One cannot claim that there was no
attempt at all to truly integrate image and sound recording. However, the only
camera to enable simultaneous recording was the 8 millimetre Kodak camera
produced for the amateur market. This appeared in 1973, when the traditional
Hollywood film production system was nearing its end. Occurring by some uncanny
coincidence in the very same year as John Ford’s death, its invention can be
interpreted as an omen heralding the rise of talk about the ‘death of film’.
The optical soundtracks used in other film formats, including 16 mm and 35 mm,
had to be imprinted after filming. Any sound recorded at the same time as
filming had to be captured separately on a Nagra tape recorder before being
transferred to the film at a later stage. To this extent, one can say that the
medium of film itself suppressed sound.
Now is the time to give serious
consideration to the hypothesis that all movies have been merely variants on
the silent film, since it is only now, in the digital age of the 21st Century,
that we are beginning to witness a real integration of image and sound
reproduction. As far as the history of film in the 20th Century is concerned,
my hypothesis seems quite plausible. The prohibition of the voice placed a
long-term ban on the development of technologies for the synchronous
reproduction of image and sound. The development of the digital video camera
and its popular adoption in the 21st Century suggest that this prohibition may
be coming to an end. It is perhaps only now that the medium of film is
beginning to break free from the long dominant paradigm of the silent film.
Video cameras containing digital
magnetic tape make it possible for the first time to record sound and image
synchronously on the same medium. Without necessarily invoking the idea that
digital technology brings about a total synthesis of the auditory and visual,
one can still appreciate how the digital video camera frees sound recording for
film from many of the constraints it suffered in the past. It enables the real
voice of actors to be recorded without suspending directional microphones on a
boom above their heads. The sound engineer can now pursue his task without
having to worry constantly about the demands of the cameraman or lighting
engineer. These new circumstances are leading to the gradual formation of
different habits of filmmaking quite unlike those inherited from the age of
Since the beginning of the 21st Century,
several outstanding film directors have begun producing their work on digital
video. Having used analogue video in the 1990s for the filming of his
multi-part series Histoire(s) du cinéma,
Jean-Luc Godard went on to film the second half of his Éloge de l’amour (2001) on digital video. Other notable examples of
films shot on digital video are Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room (2000), Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Bright Future (2003), Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), Wim Wenders’ Land
of Plenty (2004), Alexandre Sokourov’s The
Sun (2005) and Jia Zhangke’s Still
Life (2006). Shinji Aoyama’s documentary AA (2006) was also shot entirely on digital video. From these
examples it should be clear that digital technology has captured the
imagination of directors at the leading edge of contemporary cinema.
It is significant that many of the
contemporary film directors adopting digital video are what one might call
‘film fundamentalists’, steeped in the history of cinema since the silent days.
This can certainly be said of Godard, Costa, Kurosawa, Wenders and Aoyama.
Whilst they may not necessarily agree with my hypothesis, there is no doubt
that they have an acute awareness of the historical reality that synchronous
reproduction of sound and image has only now become possible since we entered
the 21st Century.
However, the question still
remains as to whether the recent work of these directors has succeeded in
abolishing the prohibition of the voice and liberating film from the paradigm
of the silent movie. We need to ask ourselves whether the optimism associated
with digital technology is really compatible with the hundred years of the
history of film. How far has humanity in the 21st Century succeeded in
distancing itself from the history of the 20th Century? Are our lives in
general still not bound by many of the events and circumstances of the 20th Century?
Just as films in the past were only variants of the silent movie, is not the
21st Century simply a variant of the 20th Century?
Such questions bear some relation
to the recent fierce debate between Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Lanzmann about
whether the gas chambers of the Holocaust should be represented in film. I
would like now to examine this debate in some detail. The Holocaust and the gas
chambers can be considered symbolic of the 20th Century. Lanzmann is of course
famous as the director of the film Shoah (1985), in which there is notably no direct visual representation of the gas
chambers. Reacting to Lanzmann’s insistence that the gas chambers should not be
represented on screen, Godard maintained to the contrary that they should, and
indeed must, be represented if film is to have any claim to historical
Although the original protagonists later withdrew from active combat, the debate was continued by Gérard Wajcman (1999) and Georges Didi-Huberman (2008). Before considering the latter, it is worth taking note of the statement by Godard that initiated the debate:
|Although I cannot prove it, I
believe that I would be able to find images of the gas chambers after about
twenty years of searching, with the help of a good investigative journalist.
One would be able to see the inmates entering the chambers and what state they
were in when they came out. This is no place for the declaration of
prohibitions in the manner of Lanzmann or Adorno. They vastly overstate their
case. Once people start debating about what is ‘unfilmable’ there is no end.
You simply cannot stop people filming, just as you should not burn books.
Otherwise you will not know what you are criticising. (Godard, 1998a: 28)
The object of Godard’s
characteristically provocative satire is the secular religiosity of those who
speak too easily of the ‘unrepresentable’. One could also call this a
metaphysics without truth. He is suggesting that Lanzmann is guilty, although
perhaps only indirectly, of repressing debate about the Holocaust by not
representing the gas chambers and therefore rendering the Holocaust itself
somehow unrepresentable. The fact that Adorno’s name is cited together with
Lanzmann’s is a reference to Adorno’s famous statement that poetry is no longer
possible after the Holocaust.
Adorno’s remark was clearly
intended to apply to Western art as a whole, of which poetry is a
representative part. In the Dialectic of
Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer (1969) had railed against the ‘fusion
of Beethoven with the Casino de Paris’ as a manifestation of the
self-destruction of the Enlightenment through the technology of reproduction in
1940s America. Having thus dismissed film as no more than a ‘bastard of
representation’, it would not have occurred to Adorno that Auschwitz could be
represented in film. Godard maintained, to the contrary, that only film could
represent Auschwitz. He had already said as much in the speech he gave on receiving
the Adorno prize (Godard 1996), where he stated that the role of film was to
stimulate thought. By failing to represent the gas chambers, film was failing
to fulfill its proper role.
In his defence of Lanzmann,
Wajcman (1999) criticises Godard’s position as no more than a nostalgic
confession of faith by a worshipper of images. He takes great exception to
Godard’s likening of Lanzmann to a book-burning dictator. On the other hand,
Didi-Huberman (2004) criticises the concept of ‘unimaginability’ underlying
Wajcman’s argument as ‘theoretical arrogance’. Didi-Huberman bases his argument
on his own intensive analysis of four photographs secretly taken by
concentration camp inmates in 1944. He raises serious doubts about whether the
memory of Auschwitz can be maintained if we continue to circle around the issue
I am naturally suspicious of any
discourse that feels it has to resort to the notions of the unimaginable or
unrepresentable. I find myself in sympathy with the sentiments of Didi-Huberman
(2008) when he makes statements such as the following: ‘It is no longer
possible to speak of Auschwitz in terms of absolutes such as the “unimaginable”
or the “unrepresentable”. Even though often well intentioned, such
superficially philosophical words are just careless’. However, it is not my
purpose here to add my own intervention to the debate. Instead, I want to point
out the way in which the debate unwittingly perpetuates the representational
form founded on the paradigm of the silent movie.
When the issue of unimaginability
or unrepresentability is discussed, the debate focuses entirely on the matter
of visual representation. Aural representation is somehow excluded from
consideration. It is strange that it never occurred to anyone to question the
absence of sound recordings from Auschwitz. While we can listen to the verbal
testimony of survivors, we have no direct record of the voices of those who did
not survive. Nor can we hear the sounds of the concentration camp, such as the
horrible roar of the incinerators where the bodies of the victims were burned.
The debate seems to be conducted in silence amid a scene devoid of all sound.
This uncanny parallel with the world of the silent film is striking.
The most surprising aspect of the
debate is the failure by all the protagonists to bring to awareness the
prohibition of the voice on which the debate is predicated. Didi-Huberman
points out that there was a photographic processing laboratory at Auschwitz.
What he does not mention, however, is whether there existed any facility for
the recording of sound. One need only mention names such as UFA and Tobis to
realise that Germany was in the forefront of the talkie film industry in Europe
by the 1930s. It is therefore entirely conceivable that sound recording
technology had been used at Auschwitz as part of a general archiving process.
Nevertheless, it does not occur to Didi-Huberman even to consider the
possibility that sound recording had taken place at the concentration camp.
Likewise, Godard cites the Nazis’ ‘obsession with recording everything’ as a
reason for the probable existence of photographs of Auschwitz. Even so, he does
not show the slightest interest in whether they might have recorded the hellish
noise of the incinerators.
In the first instalment of Histoire(s) du cinéma, which has the title ‘Toutes les histories’ (‘All the [Hi]stories’), there is a scene close to the end where Godard himself appears and makes the following curious remark linking George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951) with Auschwitz:
And if George Stevens
These words are accompanied by a
slow motion scene of Elizabeth Taylor rising up in her swimsuit while
frolicking with her lover on the lakeshore. This is overlaid with the image of
Mary Magdalene holding out her hands before Jesus from Giotto’s Jesus Appears before Mary Magdalene.
This particular scene lends some credibility to Wajcman’s criticism of Godard
as a worshipper of images. The point, however, is that Stevens, like many other
Hollywood film directors, had accompanied the US army in Europe and filmed the
ruins of the German military invasions during the Second World War. By making
this point, Godard is also hinting at the existence of films of the
concentration camps. Significantly, he omits to mention whether or not those
colour films had sound.
Wajcman expresses skepticism
toward Godard’s assertion about the existence of photographic images of
Auschwitz. He supports his critique by insisting that his own knowledge of the
existence of the gas chambers was not gained from any such images, but from the
‘profusion of verbal testimony from both public and private sources and from
both victims and perpetrators’ (1999). However, what this critique lacks is any
recognition of the possibility that the voices of the victims had been recorded.
Rather than invoking the dubious notion of unrepresentability, he should have
pointed out Godard’s failure to recognise the possibility of representation
through sound. This is where the real weakness of Godard’s worshipping of
images lies. In supporting Lanzmann, Wajcman does no more than negate the
possibility of visual representations
The scene revealed by this debate
is none other than that of a silent film. It is as if the sound recorder was
erased from Auschwitz by the prohibition of the voice. The whole issue is
pursued as if visual representation were all that mattered. The techniques of
montage demonstrated in Didi-Huberman’s analysis of the four photographs from
Auschwitz, and in Godard’s films, are techniques inherited from the silent
film. They are the very foundation on which cinematographic fiction is based.
The debate between Godard and Lanzmann, and between Didi-Huberman and Wajcman,
occurs in a discursive space predicated on the silent film. This reflects the
fact that almost all the footage of the Second World War is essentially silent.
Indeed, this leads to the observation that the silent film was the typical mode of representation of the 20th Century. This may ultimately be the most important lesson to be learned from the debate. The following quotation is from the second instalment of Histoire(s) du cinéma, called ‘Une seule histoire’ (‘A Solitary History’):
From the train arriving
The first two films mentioned here
were shot by the Lumière brothers using the cinématographe that they had invented. Rio Bravo is
the famous 1959 western directed by Howard Hawks. It was shot using the
Panavision Platinum. Gide’s nephew is Marc Allégret, who went to the Congo in
1925. The Debrie 7 he took with him was of course a silent camera. Godard is
therefore maintaining that the cameras used in the production of movies hardly
changed at all in the first hundred years of the history of film. This suggests
that Godard would find nothing new in my hypothesis.
Finally, I would like to mention
the unintended significance of the fact that most of the texts forming
Didi-Huberman’s Images in Spite of All:
Four Photographs from Auschwitz were written in the year 2001. The tragic
events of 11 September 2001 were also represented to us in a manner reminiscent
of a silent film. While we all saw the two jets flying into the World Trade
Center towers, these images were not accompanied by any sound. Television was
unable to capture the horrific sound of the impacts. Likewise, we are able to
see the mushroom clouds rising above Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the dropping
of the nuclear bombs, but we cannot hear the distinctive and horrible sound
they must have made. Although the images of 11 September were captured by
digital video cameras, which should have been able to synchronise image with
sound, in the event all we have are the images. Without the presence of
microphones on site at the moment of the impact, the possibility of
synchronisation is even now denied. One could say, therefore, that the events
of 11 September 2001 still belong in the 20th Century, the age of the silent
film. At that critical moment, there was no synchronisation of visual and aural
In his film Femmes en miroir (2002) about the memory of Hiroshima, Kiju Yoshida
chose not to recreate the sounds or images of the nuclear explosion. Instead,
the film cuts to silent archive photos taken at the actual time. The
unimaginable is thus incorporated into the film in a manner far removed from
any hint of ‘theoretical arrogance’. The director’s stance is a principled one,
reflecting a conviction that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima was a 20th-Century
tragedy that can only be approached through the silent medium of that age.
On the basis of these reflections,
it can be maintained with no uncertainty that the concept of ‘audiovisual’
representation in film is nothing more than a fiction. The medium known to us
as ‘film’ is indeed no more than a continuation of the silent movie.
Originally published in Theory, Culture and Society vol 26 no 3 (March 2009). Reprinted with
permission of the author.
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from Issue 1: Histories
© Shigehiko Hasumi 2009.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.