Sound-Film Confusion (1929)

Rudolf Arnheim, in: Arnheim, Kritiken und Aufsätze zum Film, ed. Helmut H. Diederichs, Munich/Vienna, 1979, p. 61-64

While sound film celebrates its noisy triumphs in New York and London, the European continent has up till now been satisfied to play the role of the silent, speechless spectator, and the only thing making noise over here is the yelling of the experts and the financiers, who are brawling over the patent rights. The German firms are dueling. Should American equipment be allowed? Should the sound be recorded on disk or directly on the celluloid film strip? Every day brings new systems. Thus, the Berlin inventor Dr. Stille has now, after twenty-five years of experimentation, brought forth a process that verges on witchcraft.

The Blattnerphone (already, the apparatus is no longer named after its inventor, but rather after the Blattner Corporation of London, which has acquired the world-wide rights!) is an unassuming, apparently not very complicated thing. The acoustic vibrations are captured by the microphone and transformed into electrical impulses, which in turn magnetize a running strip of metal tape. This tape—which, in contrast to all other systems, is immediately ready for playback—then runs between magnets, and the oscillation reproduced in this manner enables an amplified playback that is astoundingly true to life. The half-centimeter-wide metal tape contains not a single mechanical trace, and yet any number of copies may be made from it. On the other hand, with just a quick movement, the entire tape, or—for purposes of retouching—selected portions of it, may be demagnetized and made ready for a new recording. And so, we need not worry about the technical perfection of sound film. Today, it would seem that the cinema theater owners would have to equip themselves with seven different systems of playback equipment in order to be able to show all the variously recorded native and foreign films. But this state of affairs cannot continue for long.

The discussion about the future prospects of sound film is in no less a state of confusion. The trade papers are awhirl with demonstrations, interviews, reports from abroad, and each prominent personality contradicts the next. Artistic and business considerations mix in a delightfully indiscriminate manner. One sees in sound film the promise of a momentous boom in profits, and adroitly blends this hope into that other one—that it is also sound film"s mission to artistically enrich and carry on the project of silent film. But from a purely business standpoint, this speculation is no dead certainty. Today, sound films such as Al Jolson"s “The Singing Fool” are box office hits of the first order, so long as the sensation is hot. But how long can the appeal of novelty last!
Still other difficulties present themselves. The film critic G. A. Atkinson, of the London Daily Express, wrote not long ago that for the average movie audience, eighty minutes of talking film is far too strenuous, and that one could count on only a third of that time. And further, it seems that it is not easy to rustle up enough fodder for the speaking machines: the libretti of most talkies apparently are of an utterly unbearable quality. "From the standpoint of a theater owner," the financier Ludwig Scheer wrote recently in the Film-Kurier, "I welcome any phenomenon that is well-suited to bringing new visitors to the movie house." There"s a true word spoken among men. Hopefully, sound film will live up to these hopes.
But here we are, smack in the middle of a Babel-like babble of tongues. Erich Pommer wants to record his new Ufa film with mixed languages—which will force him to chose his actors based not on artistic standards, but those of Berlitz. For the German mountain film, “Das brennende Herz,” the London company Pro Patria is having the leading lady Mady Christians shoot some sound film footage after the fact in English. Mady Christians is, coincidentally, capable of speaking English pro patria, but that is an exception. Whoever does not have linguistic prodigies among his actors must either sell his films abroad as silent, whereby the dialog scenes are shortened and replaced by inconvenient intertitles (a process that has already began to give rise to general cries of protest); or, the same film must be shot twice, as spoken and silent. Both procedures are possible only where film is an industrial piece of trash and not an art work. For an art work is not a shirt with snap-on sleeves.

Nonetheless, even among people who deserve our admiration, there is no shortage of enthusiasts. E. A. Dupont—who, with Varieté and Piccadilly, has demonstrated amply how eloquent the silent screen can be—announces in an interview that after the classical films (“The Last Laugh,” “Variete,” “Walzertraum,” “Metropolis,” “Faust”) European film is stuck in a rut and condemned to epigonal status. "The only thing we can do is improve upon nuances..., there is no going beyond the boundaries of contemporary silent film." In this dry season, sound film appears as the "rescuer," and so he goes off to Hollywood to shoot a big sound film for Maxwell.
On the other hand, Erich von Stroheim—the talented director of “Greed”—gave up the direction of a Gloria Swanson film because the actress wanted to insert sound scenes into the nearly completed film. Chaplin and Veidt have spoken out energetically against the sound film. Adolph Zukor, the president of Paramount, has said: "The so-called sound film shall never displace silent film. I believe as before that our future lies with silent film!"
In our examination of this state of affairs, we must differentiate carefully between the talkie and actual sound film. These terms are as clumsy as possible. Sound film is, first of all, the mechanical reproduction of the musical accompaniment, which has previously been performed by the cinema-house orchestras, and it is a useful and necessary technology. It is quite beyond a doubt that in the very near future, movie orchestras will disappear and every film shall be delivered with its own acoustic accompaniment. On that score, there is no debate. But as soon as the accompaniment has turned to the imitation of reproduction of noises—bells, shots, instruments—then we have crossed the line to the talkie. The latter is defined by the fact that all the accompanying acoustic phenomena of the optically represented scene must be delivered with the film; and—as was already demonstrated here by means of numerous examples in issue 42 (1928)—there are the strongest possible artistic reservations about this. The "illustrated film," as we shall call it in distinction to the "acoustic film," will perfect its technique of underpainting. All the refinements of the sound effect shall be harnessed. But the acoustic dimension here shall never be anything other than the accompaniment of the optical. Whereas with the "acoustic film," if it is to have any significance at all, what is heard and what is seen must be coordinated as a matter of principle.

The sparse and isolated attempts we have seen here so far were not particularly suited to winning followers for acoustic film. These past days, for instance, the Kamera was showing the Tobis film “Paganini”—an impressive demonstration of the adage that it is not the sound that makes the music. The sound of the synchronized accompaniment was about as beautiful as when you ride in the subway under a square where a military band is playing. The film was set in a dusty, cardboard Venice, so that one could have believed oneself to be at one of those beloved shows of "The Cinema Twenty Years Ago," were one not constantly dragged back to the raw present by the sight of the actress Agnes Esterhazy—which, in itself, offered excuse enough to leave the theatre to the tune of the Erhardt song. Paganini was played by the violinist Weisgerber, whose lack of thespian talent is something the viewer of an acoustic film must just accept, like the hypertrophic obesity of the heroines at the opera. There was a lot of fiddling, which held up the plot rather tiresomely. And at one point, simply because the sound-film equipment had been invented, a singer stood on a street corner and belted out a musical number. As long as one saw the singer, the song glided from his lips in a singer-like manner. But the moment the frame changed in the middle of a line—to show the listeners on the balcony, for instance—the song remained hanging helplessly in the acoustic space.
This is a good example of the impossibility of transferring onto acoustic film the montage techniques of silent film. For it is not possible for acoustic film to appropriate the sovereignty that silent film has won with effort and with which it assembles a scene out of a multiplicity of single takes. An acoustic presentation, namely, always functions as a process in time, whereas an optical one always represents scenery at rest. This goes hand in hand with an extremely important psychological fact, which has however been universally and criminally ignored (for instance, in the theory of the so-called “color organ”): if for an entire minute, I give you a red bottle, it has the effect of a state that persists; but if I give you sound, it has the effect of an unceasing action in the process of continually producing itself anew! That is why I can easily interrupt one film image and add on another, while the interruption of an acoustic sequence will always make it seem torn apart and shattered. It therefore follows, as a matter of law, that during an acoustic sequence representing a natural occurrence (a song, a dialog) there can be no optical change of scene, indeed, probably not even a simple adjustment in the framing of the same object! And thus, the basic principle of silent film—montage—proves to be unusable for acoustic film.
But it is easy to foresee how it shall all turn out. Just as silent film copied theater, so the acoustic film will now copy silent film, and the results will be just as unpleasant! But a healthy development might be imagined as follows: acoustic film perfects itself into three-dimensional film with natural color and faithful reproduction of sound. It will take the place of theater, which—with its feeble acoustics and tiny actors and stage set, clearly visible only to the small minority of the audience—represents an antiquated way of seeing and hearing unworthy of our technically advanced times. Independently of this development, silent ("illustrated"), black-and-white, two-dimensional film would continue to evolve further as a unique art form. For the moment, however, we are in the process of taking some complicated and expensive detours. The goal is out of sight.