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Fiction and the ‘Unrepresentable’:
All Movies are but Variants on the Silent Film

Shigehiko Hasumi


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 these facts.




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 extremely perilous.


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 silent film.


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 fidelity.


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 of unrepresentability.




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
hadn't used the first 16mm
film in colour
at Auschwitz
and Ravensbrück
Elizabeth Taylor would
no doubt never have
found her place in the sun


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 of Auschwitz.


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
at the station or Nursing
the Baby to Rio Bravo
the camera has never
fundamentally changed
The Panflex Platinum is
less developed than the
Debrie 7
which Gide’s nephew
took on his journey
to the Congo


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 representation.


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.



Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer (1969) Dialectic of Enlightenment. Continuum.

Derrida, Jacques (1976) Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Didi-Huberman, Georges (2008) Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz. University of Chicago Press.

Godard, Jean-Luc (1996) ‘A propos de cinéma et d’histoire’, Trafic 18: 28–32.

Godard, Jean-Luc (1998) ‘La Légende du siècle’, Les Inrockuptibles 170.

Hashimoto, Fumio and Koshi Ueno (1996) Ee Oto ya nai ka [Isn’t That a Nice

Sound]. Tokyo: Ritoru Moa.

Kittler, Friedrich (1986) Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Berlin: Brinkmann & Bose


Wajcman, Gérard (1999) ‘“Saint Paul” Godard contre “Moïse” Lanzmann, le

match’, L’infini 65: 121–7.


from Issue 1: Histories


© Shigehiko Hasumi 2009.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.