Urban Vision and Surveillance: Notes on a Moment in Karl Grune's Die Strasse

By Kaes, Anton | German Politics and Society, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Urban Vision and Surveillance: Notes on a Moment in Karl Grune's Die Strasse


Kaes, Anton, German Politics and Society


Every film has its moment. Be it an unforeseen glance, an unmotivated gesture, or a startling sequence unnecessary for narrative progression, such a "moment" reveals in a flash what's at stake--then and now. In the following, I analyze such a moment in Karl Grune's Die Strasse (The Street), a film that Siegfried Kracauer considered one of the defining documents of German modernity. (1) Produced and shown in fall of 1923, the film inaugurated the so-called Strassenfilm genre, which combined the visual language of expressionist cinema (oblique angles, harsh lighting, heavy shadows, painted backdrops, distorted spaces, stylized gestures) with an urban setting. In its gritty exploration of sex, crime, morality, and madness, the street film became the prototype for American film noir of the 1940s. The Street has its "moment" in a brief sequence that discloses the film's underlying theoretical project-the nexus between urban modernity and the disciplining power of vision.

The sequence, about twenty minutes into the film and approximately one minute long, depicts a middle-aged flaneur whose eager pursuit of a woman is interrupted by an unexpected occurrence: an advertising sign in the shape of a pair of crudely drawn eyes, hung high above the window of an eyewear store, comes alive as he passes by. The inanimate sign's painted eyelids open, blink, and expose a fixed white retina staring at our wayward flaneur. In utter astonishment he freezes and returns the gaze of the suddenly animated sign. This sequence abruptly stops the flaneur's narrative, a narrative that began when he made the sudden decision to escape his suffocating petit-bourgeois home and to enter the public space of the street. Following the narrative trajectory of Georg Kaiser's 1912 expressionist play, Von morgens bis mitternacht (From Morning to Midnight) and its 1920 eponymous film version by Karl Heinz Martin, Grune's The Street dramatizes the transformation of a meek office worker into a feverish seeker of ecstasy. Fleeing from dull domesticity into the busy street, both Kaiser and Grune's antiheroes are driven by the promise of excitement, adventure, and risk. Their Nietzschean goal is a vitalistic, Dionysian life that transforms their regulated and repressed existence. But their search ends in despair. Kaiser's nameless protagonist kills himself in a grandiose finale with Christian overtones, whereas the hapless Kleinburger of Grune's film returns to his home, shamed and penitent. Back in the safety of his home at the end of the film, his wife silently serves him the warmed-up soup he left untouched the night before. The adventure is over. The experience of the street, with its passion and danger, seems nothing more than the product of an overwrought imagination. Was it a dream, a vision, a film?

The film's first scene establishes the film's high level of self-reflection. Berlin's street life is shown to enter his living room, reminiscent of the 1911 painting by the futurist Umberto Boccioni, La strada entra nella casa. Lying on a living room sofa, the film's nameless protagonist watches the moving shadows from the street reflected through the window on to the walls of his living quarters. Like a moviegoer in the early days of cinema, he sees fuzzy black and white images of urban life: pedestrians rushing by; a man addressing a woman and following her deliriously; passing vehicles refracting the light into a myriad of luminous rays. Transfixed and aroused by the spectacle, the man sits up, visibly yearning for the bustling life behind the flickering shadows. This phantasmagoria (in the classical sense of eighteenth century precinematic shadow plays) presages his own adventure as an urban flaneur, consumed with desire. Grune's narrative also imitates the very experience of going to the movies as an escape from the everyday humdrum life, a brief virtual encounter with crime and sex, and after two hours' action and adventure in the dark theater, a return to ordinary life.

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