For other people named Max Müller, see Max Müller (disambiguation).
Max Müller as a young man
|Born||Friedrich Max Müller|
(1823-12-06)6 December 1823
Dessau, Duchy of Anhalt, German Confederation
|Died||28 October 1900(1900-10-28) (aged 76)|
Oxford, Oxfordshire, England
|Education||University of Leipzig|
|Notable works||The Sacred Books of the East, Chips from a German Workshop|
|Spouse||Georgina Adelaide Grenfell|
|Children||Wilhelm Max Müller|
Friedrich Max Müller (6 December 1823 – 28 October 1900), generally known as Max Müller, was a German-born philologist and Orientalist, who lived and studied in Britain for most of his life. He was one of the founders of the western academic field of Indian studies and the discipline of comparative religion. Müller wrote both scholarly and popular works on the subject of Indology. The Sacred Books of the East, a 50-volume set of English translations, was prepared under his direction. He also promoted the idea of a Turanian family of languages.
Early life and education
Friedrich Max Müller was born into a cultured family on 6 December 1823 in Dessau, the son of Wilhelm Müller, a lyric poet whose verse Franz Schubert had set to music in his song-cycles Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. His mother, Adelheid Müller (née von Basedow), was the eldest daughter of a prime minister of Anhalt-Dessau. Carl Maria von Weber was a godfather.
Müller was named after his mother's elder brother, Friedrich, and after the central character, Max, in Weber's opera Der Freischütz. Later in life, he adopted Max as a part of his surname, believing that the prevalence of Müller as a name made it too common. His name was also recorded as "Maximilian" on several official documents (e.g. university register, marriage certificate), on some of his honours and in some other publications.
Müller entered the gymnasium (grammar school) at Dessau when he was six years old. In 1839, after the death of his grandfather, he was sent to the Nicolai School at Leipzig, where he continued to his studies of music and classics. It was during his time in Leipzig that he frequently met Felix Mendelssohn.
In need of a scholarship to attend Leipzig University, Müller successfully sat his abitur examination at Zerbst. While preparing, he found that the syllabus differed from what he had been taught, necessitating that he rapidly learn mathematics, modern languages and science. He entered Leipzig University in 1841 to study philology, leaving behind his early interest in music and poetry. Müller received his degree in 1843. His final dissertation was on Spinoza's Ethics. He also displayed an aptitude for classical languages, learning Greek, Latin, Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit.
In 1850 Müller was appointed deputy Taylorian professor of modern European languages at Oxford University. In the following year, at the suggestion of Thomas Gaisford, he was made an honorary M.A. and a member of the college of Christ Church, Oxford. On succeeding to the full professorship in 1854, he received the full degree of M.A. by Decree of Convocation. In 1858 he was elected to a life fellowship at All Souls' College.
He was defeated in the 1860 election for the Boden Professor of Sanskrit, which was a "keen disappointment" to him. Müller was far better qualified for the post than the other candidate (Monier Monier-Williams), but his broad theological views, his Lutheranism, his German birth and lack of practical first-hand knowledge of India told against him. After the election he wrote to his mother, "all the best people voted for me, the Professors almost unanimously, but the vulgus profanum made the majority".
Later in 1868, Müller became Oxford's first Professor of Comparative Philology, a position founded on his behalf. He held this chair until his death, although he retired from its active duties in 1875.
Scholarly and literary works
In 1844, prior to commencing his academic career at Oxford, Müller studied in Berlin with Friedrich Schelling. He began to translate the Upanishads for Schelling, and continued to research Sanskrit under Franz Bopp, the first systematic scholar of the Indo-European languages (IE). Schelling led Müller to relate the history of language to the history of religion. At this time, Müller published his first book, a German translation of the Hitopadesa, a collection of Indian fables.
In 1845 Müller moved to Paris to study Sanskrit under Eugène Burnouf. Burnouf encouraged him to publish the complete Rigveda, making use of the manuscripts available in England. He moved to England in 1846 to study Sanskrit texts in the collection of the East India Company. He supported himself at first with creative writing, his novel German Love being popular in its day.
Müller's connections with the East India Company and with Sanskritists based at Oxford University led to a career in Britain, where he eventually became the leading intellectual commentator on the culture of India. At the time, Britain controlled this territory as part of its Empire. This led to complex exchanges between Indian and British intellectual culture, especially through Müller's links with the Brahmo Samaj.
Müller's Sanskrit studies came at a time when scholars had started to see language development in relation to cultural development. The recent discovery of the Indo-European language group had started to lead to much speculation about the relationship between Greco-Roman cultures and those of more ancient peoples. In particular the Vedic culture of India was thought to have been the ancestor of European Classical cultures. Scholars sought to compare the genetically related European and Asian languages to reconstruct the earliest form of the root-language. The Vedic language, Sanskrit, was thought to be the oldest of the IE languages.
Müller devoted himself to the study of this language, becoming one of the major Sanskrit scholars of his day. He believed that the earliest documents of Vedic culture should be studied to provide the key to the development of pagan European religions, and of religious belief in general. To this end, Müller sought to understand the most ancient of Vedic scriptures, the Rig-Veda. Müller was greatly impressed by Ramakrishna Paramhansa, his contemporary and proponent of Vedantic philosophy, and wrote several essays and books about him.
For Müller, the study of the language had to relate to the study of the culture in which it had been used. He came to the view that the development of languages should be tied to that of belief-systems. At that time the Vedic scriptures were little-known in the West, though there was increasing interest in the philosophy of the Upanishads. Müller believed that the sophisticated Upanishadic philosophy could be linked to the primitive henotheism of early Vedic Brahmanism from which it evolved. He had to travel to London to look at documents held in the collection of the British East India Company. While there he persuaded the company to allow him to undertake a critical edition of the Rig-Veda, a task he pursued over many years (1849–1874). He completed the critical edition for which he is most remembered.. Scientific American carried his obituary in the December 8th, 1900 edition of the magazine. It was revealed that Max Muller had in fact usurped the full credit for the translation of the Rig veda which was actually not his work at all, but of another unnamed german scholar whom Muller had paid to translate the text. To quote from his obituary in Scientific American, "What he constantly proclaimed to be his own great work, the edition of the "Rig Veda," was in reality not his at all. A German scholar did the work, and Muller appropriated the credit for it."
For Müller, the culture of the Vedic peoples represented a form of nature worship, an idea clearly influenced by Romanticism. Müller shared many of the ideas associated with Romanticism, which coloured his account of ancient religions, in particular his emphasis on the formative influence on early religion of emotional communion with natural forces. He saw the gods of the Rig-Veda as active forces of nature, only partly personified as imagined supernatural persons. From this claim Müller derived his theory that mythology is "a disease of language". By this he meant that myth transforms concepts into beings and stories. In Müller's view, "gods" began as words constructed to express abstract ideas, but were transformed into imagined personalities. Thus the Indo-European father-god appears under various names: Zeus, Jupiter, Dyaus Pita. For Müller all these names can be traced to the word "Dyaus", which he understood to imply "shining" or "radiance". This leads to the terms "deva", "deus", "theos" as generic terms for a god, and to the names "Zeus" and "Jupiter" (derived from deus-pater). In this way a metaphor becomes personified and ossified. This aspect of Müller's thinking was later explored similarly by Nietzsche.
In 1888, Müller was appointed Gifford Lecturer at the University of Glasgow. These Gifford Lectures were the first in an annual series, given at several Scottish universities, that has continued to the present day. Over the next four years, Müller gave four series of lectures. The titles and order of the lectures were as follows:
- Natural Religion. This first course of lectures was intended as purely introductory, and had for its object a definition of Natural Religion in its widest sense.
- Physical Religion. This second course of lectures was intended to show how different nations had arrived at a belief in something infinite behind the finite, in something invisible behind the visible, in many unseen agents or gods of nature, until they reached a belief in one god above all those gods. In short, a history of the discovery of the infinite in nature.
- Anthropological Religion. This third course was intended to show how different nations arrived at a belief in a soul, how they named its various faculties, and what they imagined about its fate after death.
- Theosophy or Psychological Religion. The fourth and last course of lectures was intended to examine the relation between God and the soul ("these two Infinites"), including the ideas that some of the principal nations of the world have formed concerning this relation. Real religion, Müller asserted, is founded on a true perception of the relation of the soul to God and of God to the soul; Müller wanted to prove that this was true, not only as a postulate, but as an historical fact. The original title of the lectures was 'Psychological Religion' but Müller felt compelled to add 'Theosophy' to it.
In 1881, he published a translation of the first edition of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. He agreed with Schopenhauer that this edition was the most direct and honest expression of Kant's thought. His translation corrected several errors that were committed by previous translators. In his Translator's Preface, Müller wrote
The bridge of thoughts and sighs that spans the whole history of the Aryan world has its first arch in the Veda, its last in Kant's Critique. ... While in the Veda we may study the childhood, we may study in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason the perfect manhood of the Aryan mind. ... The materials are now accessible, and the English-speaking race, the race of the future, will have in Kant's Critique another Aryan heirloom, as precious as the Veda—a work that may be criticised, but can never be ignored.
Müller continued to be influenced by the Kantian Transcendentalist model of spirituality, and was opposed to Darwinian ideas of human development. He argued that "language forms an impassable barrier between man and beast."
He was also influenced by the work Thought and Reality, of the Russian philosopher African Spir.
Views on India
In his career, Müller several times expressed the view that a "reformation" within Hinduism needed to occur, comparable to the Christian Reformation. In his view, "if there is one thing which a comparative study of religions places in the clearest light, it is the inevitable decay to which every religion is exposed... Whenever we can trace back a religion to its first beginnings, we find it free from many blemishes that affected it in its later states".
He used his links with the Brahmo Samaj to encourage such a reformation on the lines pioneered by Ram Mohan Roy. Müller believed that the Brahmos would engender an Indian form of Christianity and that they were in practice "Christians, without being Roman Catholics, Anglicans or Lutherans". In the Lutheran tradition, he hoped that the "superstition" and idolatry, which he considered to be characteristic of modern popular Hinduism, would disappear.
The translation of the Veda will hereafter tell to a great extent on the fate of India, and on the growth of millions of souls in that country. It is the root of their religion, and to show them what the root is, is, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last 3,000 years.
Müller hoped that increased funding for education in India would promote a new form of literature combining Western and Indian traditions. In 1868 he wrote to George Campbell, the newly appointed Secretary of State for India:
India has been conquered once, but India must be conquered again, and that second conquest should be a conquest by education. Much has been done for education of late, but if the funds were tripled and quadrupled, that would hardly be enough (...) By encouraging a study of their own ancient literature, as part of their education, a national feeling of pride and self-respect will be reawakened among those who influence the large masses of the people. A new national literature may spring up, impregnated with Western ideas, yet retaining its native spirit and character (...) A new national literature will bring with it a new national life, and new moral vigour. As to religion, that will take care of itself. The missionaries have done far more than they themselves seem to be aware of, nay, much of the work which is theirs they would probably disclaim. The Christianity of our nineteenth century will hardly be the Christianity of India. But the ancient religion of India is doomed—and if Christianity does not step in, whose fault will it be?
— Max Müller, (1868)
In his sixties and seventies, Müller gave a series of lectures, which reflected a more nuanced view in favour of Hinduism and the ancient literature from India. In his "What can India teach us?" lecture at University of Cambridge, he championed ancient Sanskrit literature and India as follows:
If I were to look over the whole world to find out the country most richly endowed with all the wealth, power, and beauty that nature can bestow—in some parts a very paradise on earth—I should point to India. If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most full developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions of some of them which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant—I should point to India. And if I were to ask myself from what literature we, here in Europe, we who have been nurtured almost exclusively on the thoughts of Greeks and Romans, and of one Semitic race, the Jewish, may draw that corrective which is most wanted in order to make our inner life more perfect, more comprehensive, more universal, in fact more truly human, a life, not for this life only, but a transfigured and eternal life—again I should point to India.
— Max Müller, (1883)
He also conjectured that the introduction of Islam in India in the 11th century had a deep effect on the psyche and behaviour of Hindus in another lecture, "Truthful Character of the Hindus":
The other epic poem too, the Mahabharata, is full of episodes showing a profound regard for truth. (...) Were I to quote from all the law-books, and from still later works, everywhere you would hear the same key-note of truthfulness vibrating through them all. (...) I say once more that I do not wish to represent the people of India as two hundred and fifty-three millions of angels, but I do wish it to be understood and to be accepted as a fact, that the damaging charge of untruthfulness brought against that people is utterly unfounded with regard to ancient times. It is not only not true, but the very opposite of the truth. As to modern times, and I date them from about 1000 after Christ (AD), I can only say that, after reading the accounts of the terrors and horrors of Mohammedan rule, my wonder is that so much of native virtue and truthfulness should have survived. You might as well expect a mouse to speak the truth before a cat, as a Hindu before a Mohammedan judge.
— Max Müller, (1884)
Swami Vivekananda, who was the foremost disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, met Müller over a lunch on 28 May 1896. Regarding Müller and his wife, the Swami later wrote:
The visit was really a revelation to me. That little white house, its setting in a beautiful garden, the silver-haired sage, with a face calm and benign, and forehead smooth as a child's in spite of seventy winters, and every line in that face speaking of a deep-seated mine of spirituality somewhere behind; that noble wife, the helpmate of his life through his long and arduous task of exciting interest, overriding opposition and contempt, and at last creating a respect for the thoughts of the sages of ancient India—the trees, the flowers, the calmness, and the clear sky—all these sent me back in imagination to the glorious days of ancient India, the days of our brahmarshis and rajarshis, the days of the great vanaprasthas, the days of Arundhatis and Vasishthas. It was neither the philologist nor the scholar that I saw, but a soul that is every day realizing its oneness with the universe.
During the course of his Gifford Lectures on the subject of "natural religion", Müller was severely criticised for being anti-Christian. In 1891, at a meeting of the Established Presbytery of Glasgow, Mr. Thomson (Minister of Ladywell) moved a motion that Müller's teaching was "subversive of the Christian faith, and fitted to spread pantheistic and infidel views amongst the students and others" and questioned Müller's appointment as lecturer. An even stronger attack on Müller was made by Monsignor Alexander Munro in St Andrew's Cathedral. Munro, an officer of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland (and Provost of the Catholic Cathedral of Glasgow from 1884 to 1892), declared that Müller's lectures "were nothing less than a crusade against Divine revelation, against Jesus Christ, and against Christianity". The blasphemous lectures were, he continued, "the proclamation of atheism under the guise of pantheism" and "uprooted our idea of God, for it repudiated the idea of a personal God".
Similar accusations had already led to Müller's exclusion from the Boden chair in Sanskrit in favour of the conservative Monier Monier-Williams. By the 1880s Müller was being courted by Charles Godfrey Leland, Helena Blavatsky, and other writers who were seeking to assert the merits of "pagan" religious traditions over Christianity. The designer Mary Fraser Tytler stated that Müller's book Chips from a German Workshop (a collection of his essays) was her "Bible", which helped her to create a multi-cultural sacred imagery.
Müller distanced himself from these developments, and remained within the Lutheran faith in which he had been brought up. According to G. Beckerlegge, "Müller's background as a Lutheran German and his identification with the Broad Church party" led to "suspicion by those opposed to the political and religious positions that they felt Müller represented", particularly his latitudinarianism.
Müller attempted to formulate a philosophy of religion that addressed the crisis of faith engendered by the historical and critical study of religion by German scholars on the one hand, and by the Darwinian revolution on the other. He was wary of Darwin's work on human evolution, and attacked his view of the development of human faculties. His work was taken up by cultural commentators such as his friend John Ruskin, who saw it as a productive response to the crisis of the age (compare Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach"). He analysed mythologies as rationalisations of natural phenomena, primitive beginnings that we might denominate "protoscience" within a cultural evolution.
In 1870 Müller gave a short course of three lectures for the British Institution on language as the barrier between man and beast, which he called "On Darwin's Philosophy of Language". Müller specifically disagreed with Darwin's theories on the origin of language and that the language of man could have developed from the language of animals. In 1873, he sent a copy of his lectures to Darwin reassuring him that, though he differed from some of Darwin's conclusions, he was one of his "diligent readers and sincere admirers".
Müller's work contributed to the developing interest in Aryan culture, which often set Indo-European ('Aryan') traditions in opposition to Semitic religions. He was "deeply saddened by the fact that these classifications later came to be expressed in racist terms", as this was far from his intention. For Müller the discovery of common Indian and European ancestry was a powerful argument against racism, arguing that "an ethnologist who speaks of Aryan race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair, is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or a brachycephalic grammar" and that "the blackest Hindus represent an earlier stage of Aryan speech and thought than the fairest Scandinavians".
Müller put forward and promoted the theory of a "Turanian" family of languages or speech, comprising the Finnic, Samoyedic, "Tataric" (Turkic), Mongolic, and Tungusic languages. According to Müller these five languages were those "spoken in Asia or Europe not included under the Arian (sic) and Semitic families, with the exception perhaps of the Chinese and its dialects". In addition, they were "nomadic languages," in contrast to the other two families (Aryan and Semitic), which he called State or political languages.
The idea of a Turanian family of languages was not accepted by everyone at the time. Although the term "Turanian" quickly became an archaism (unlike "Aryan"), it did not disappear completely. The idea was absorbed later into nationalist ideologies in Hungary and Turkey.
In 1869 Müller was elected to the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres as a foreign correspondent (associé étranger).
In June 1874 Müller was awarded the Pour le Mérite (civil class), much to his surprise. Soon after, when he was commanded to dine at Windsor, he wrote to Prince Leopold to ask if he might wear his Order, and the wire came back, "Not may, but must."
In 1875 Müller was awarded the Bavarian Maximilian Order for Science and Art. The award is given to acknowledge excellent and outstanding achievements in the field of science and art. In a letter to his mother dated 19 December, Müller wrote that the award was more showy than the Pour le Mérite, "but that is the best".
In 1896 Müller was appointed a member of the Privy Council.
Müller became a naturalized British citizen in 1855, at the age of 32.
He married Georgina Adelaide Grenfell on 3 August 1859. The couple had four children – Ada, Mary, Beatrice and Wilhelm Max – of whom two predeceased them.
Georgina (died 1919) had his papers and correspondence bound; they are at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Death and legacy
Müller's health began deteriorating in 1898 and he died at his home in Oxford on 28 October 1900. He was interred at Holywell Cemetery on 1 November 1900.
After his death a memorial fund was opened at Oxford for "the promotion of learning and research in all matters relating to the history and archaeology, the languages, literatures, and religions of ancient India".
The Goethe Institutes in India are named Max Müller Bhavan in his honour, as is a street (Max Mueller Marg) in New Delhi.
Müller's biographies include those by Lourens van den Bosch (2002), Jon R. Stone (2002) and Nirad C. Chaudhuri (1974), the last of which was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for English by Sahitya Akademi, India's National Academy of Letters. Stephen G. Alter's (2005) work contains a chapter on Müller's rivalry with the American linguist William Dwight Whitney.
Müller's scholarly works, published separately as well as an 18-volume Collected Works, include:
- Lectures on the Science of Language were translated into Russian in 1866 and published at the first Russian scientific linguistic magazine "Filologicheskie Zapiski".
- Chips from a German Workshop (1867–75, 5 vols.)
- Introduction to the Science of Religion (1873)
- Max Muller (1878). Lectures on the origin and growth of religion as illustrated by the religions of India.
- Friedrich Max Müller (1881). Critique of Pure Reason (German: Kritik der reinen Vernunft, KrV), by Immanuel Kant, translated by Friedrich Max Müller.
- Friedrich Max Müller (1883). India: what Can it Teach Us?: A Course of Lectures Delivered Before the University of Cambridge. Longmans, Green.
- Biographical Essays (1884)
- Upanishads. Wordsworth Editions. 1 January 2000. ISBN 978-1-84022-102-2.
- The German classics from the fourth to the nineteenth century. Scribners. 1886.
- The Science of Thought (1887, 2 vols.)
- Studies in Buddhism. Asian Educational Services. 1999. ISBN 978-81-206-1226-6.
- Six Systems of Hindu Philosophy (1899)
- Gifford Lectures of 1888–92 (Collected Works, vols. 1–4)
- Auld Lang Syne (1898, 2 vols.), a memoir
- My Autobiography: A Fragment (1901) 
- Friedrich Max Müller; G. A. M (Georgina Adelaide Müller) (1902). The Life and Letters of the Right Honourable Friedrich Max Müller. Longmans, Green.
- ^ abcdSara Abraham and Brannon Hancock, doctoral students of theology in University of Glasgow Friedrich Max Muller. Gifford Lectures.
- ^ abcdeR. C. C. Fynes (May 2007), Müller, Friedrich Max (1823–1900), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, , accessed 17 March 2013] (subscription or UK public library membership required)
- ^ abAcadémiciens depuis 1663. Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.
- ^Charles Johnston (1900) An Estimate of Max Muller (1823–1900). The American Monthly Review of Reviews, Vol XXII, July–December. The Review of Reviews Company: New York, pp.703–706.
- ^Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement.
- ^Müller, Georgina (1902), The Life and Letters of Right Honorable Friedrich Max Müller. Vol 1. London: Longman, pp. 241–242
- ^Müller (1902) The Life and Letters, p. 244
- ^George Sandeman. The Harmsworth Encyclopaedia: Everybody's Book of Reference : containing 50,000 articles, profusely illustrated, Volume 6. The Amalgamated Press. p. 4042. Originally from New York Public Library
- ^Margaret Thomas (2011). Fifty Key Thinkers on Language and Linguistics. Routledge. p. 109. ISBN 0415373026.
- ^"Vedanta Society of New York: Ramakrishna". Archived from the original on 16 September 2016. Retrieved 25 August 2016.
- ^B. R. Modak. Sayana, Volume 203. Sahitya Akademi. p. 33. ISBN 9788172019402.
- ^"Scientific American. v.50."Retrieved 25 August 2016.
- ^Mittal, Sushil; Thursby, Gene (10 September 2007). "Studying Hinduism: Key Concepts and Methods". Taylor & Francis. Retrieved 25 August 2016 – via Google Books.
- ^Müller, F. Max (1895), Theosophy or Psychological Religion. London: Longmans, Green and Co., pp.89–90.
- ^J.Lection (1882). The Athenaeum. p. 629. Original from Priceton University
- ^Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Last Essays by the Right Hon. Professor F. Max Müller ... First Series: Essays on Language, Folklore and Other Subjects; pub. by Longmans, Green and Company, 1901, accessed August 2017
- ^The Twentieth Century, Volume 23. p. 745. Original from Cornell University
- ^Müller, F. Max. Three Lectures on the Science of Language, etc., with a Supplement, My Predecessors. 3rd ed. Chicago, 1899, p. 9.
- ^Menant, M. D. (1907) "Influence of Max Muller's Hibbert Lectures in India," The American Journal of Theology, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 293–307.
- ^Jacques Waardenburg (1999). Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion: Aims, Methods, and Theories of Research, Volume 1. Walter de Gruyter. p. 87. ISBN 9783110163285.
- ^Sharada Sugirtharajah, Imagining hinduism: a postcolonial perspective, Routledge, 2003, pp. 60–61.
- ^Edwin Bryant (2001). The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University Press. p. 289. ISBN 9780195137774.
- ^Eliot Weinberger (2000). Karmic Traces, 1993–1999. New Directions Publishing. p. 174. ISBN 9780811214568.
- ^Müller, Georgina (1902) The Life and Letters of Right Honorable Friedrich Max Müller. Vol 1. London: Longman, pp. 357–358
- ^Max Müller, INDIA – LECTURE I. WHAT CAN INDIA TEACH US?, A Course of Lectures Delivered before the University of Cambridge, Project Gutenberg
- ^Max Müller, INDIA – LECTURE II. Truthful Character of the Hindus, A Course of Lectures Delivered before the University of Cambridge, Project Gutenberg
- ^Nikhilananda, Swami (1953), Vivekananda: A Biography(PDF), New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, p. 106, ISBN 0-911206-25-6, archived from the original(PDF) on 25 January 2012, retrieved 19 March 2012
- ^Müller (1902) The Life and Letters, p. 262
- ^Müller, Georgina (1902) The Life and Letters of Right Honorable Friedrich Max Müller. Vol 2. London: Longman, p. 263
- ^Beckerlegge, G. (1997) "Professor Friedrich Max Müller and the Missionary Cause". In, John Wolffe (Ed) Religion in Victorian Britain V Culture and Empire. Manchester University Press, p.189.
- ^"More Letters of Charles Darwin – Volume 2" Page 397
- ^Jorg Esleben; Jörg Esleben; Christina Kraenzle; Sukanya Kulkarni (2008). Mapping channels between Ganges and Rhein: German-Indian cross-cultural relations. Cambridge Scholars publication. ISBN 9781847185877.
- ^F. Max Müller, Biographies of Words and the Home of the Aryas (1888), Kessinger Publishing reprint, 2004, p.120; Dorothy Matilda Figueira, Aryans, Jews, Brahmins: Theorizing Authority Through Myths of Identity, SUNY Press, 2002, p. 45
- ^Müller, M. (1854) The last results of the researches respecting the non-Iranian and non-Semitic languages of Asia or Europe, or the Turanian family of language. (Letter of Professor Max Muller to Chevalier Bunsen; Oxford August 1853; on the classification of the Turanian languages). In, Christian Bunsen (1854) Outlines of the Philosophy of Universal History, Applied to Language and Religion. In Two Volumes. Vol. 1. London: Brown, Green, and Longmans.
- ^Müller, M. (1855) The Languages of the Seat of War in the East. With a Survey of the Three Families of language, Semitic, Arian, and Turanian. London: Williams and Norgate. 2nd edition
- ^Müller, M. (1855) The languages of the seat of war in the East. With a survey of the three families of language, Semitic, Arian, and Turanian. London: Williams and Norgate, p. 86.
- ^David Waterhouse (2002). The Origins of Himalayan Studies: Brian Houghton Hodgson in Nepal and Darjeeling. p. 20/232.
- ^Masuza, T. (2005) The Invention of World Religions, Or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. The University of Chicago Press, p.229.
- ^Günay Göksu Özdoğan: The case of racism-Turanism: Turkism during single-party period, 1931–1944: a radical variant of Turkish nationalism
- ^Müller, Georgina (1902). The Life and Letters of Right Honorable Friedrich Max Müller. Vol 1. London: Longman, p. 462
- ^Müller, Georgina (1902) The Life and Letters of Right Honorable Friedrich Max Müller. Vol 1. London: Longman, p. 503
- ^"No. 26754". The London Gazette. 30 June 1896. p. 3767.
- ^"Max Muller Papers". Retrieved 25 August 2016.
- ^Max Müller Memorial Fund. Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford.
- ^About Max Mueller. Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan.
- ^Müller, F. Max (Friedrich Max) (16 October 2009). "My Autobiography: A Fragment". Retrieved 25 August 2016 – via Project Gutenberg.
from our August 2013 issue
Le camera stylo? Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
I recently had a heated argument with a cinephile filmmaking friend about Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (1983). Having recently completed her first feature, and with such matters on her mind, my friend contended that the film’s power lay in its combinations of image and sound, irrespective of Marker’s inimitable voiceover narration. “Do you think that people who can’t understand English or French will get nothing out of the film?” she said; to which I – hot under the collar – replied that they might very well get something, but that something would not be the complete work.
The Sight & Sound Deep Focus season Thought in Action: The Art of the Essay Film runs at BFI Southbank 1-28 August 2013, with a keynote lecture by Kodwo Eshun on 1 August, a talk by writer and academic Laura Rascaroli on 27 August and a closing panel debate on 28 August.
To take this film-lovers’ tiff to a more elevated plane, what it suggests is that the essentialist conception of cinema is still present in cinephilic and critical culture, as are the difficulties of containing within it works that disrupt its very fabric. Ever since Vachel Lindsay published The Art of the Moving Picture in 1915 the quest to secure the autonomy of film as both medium and art – that ever-elusive ‘pure cinema’ – has been a preoccupation of film scholars, critics, cinephiles and filmmakers alike. My friend’s implicit derogation of the irreducible literary element of Sans soleil and her neo-Godardian invocation of ‘image and sound’ touch on that strain of this phenomenon which finds, in the technical-functional combination of those two elements, an alchemical, if not transubstantiational, result.
Mechanically created, cinema defies mechanism: it is poetic, transportive and, if not irrational, then a-rational. This mystically-minded view has a long and illustrious tradition in film history, stretching from the sense-deranging surrealists – who famously found accidental poetry in the juxtapositions created by randomly walking into and out of films; to the surrealist-influenced, scientifically trained and ontologically minded André Bazin, whose realist veneration of the long take centred on the very preternaturalness of nature as revealed by the unblinking gaze of the camera; to the trash-bin idolatry of the American underground, weaving new cinematic mythologies from Hollywood detritus; and to auteurism itself, which (in its more simplistic iterations) sees the essence of the filmmaker inscribed even upon the most compromised of works.
It isn’t going too far to claim that this tradition has constituted the foundation of cinephilic culture and helped to shape the cinematic canon itself. If Marker has now been welcomed into that canon and – thanks to the far greater availability of his work – into the mainstream of (primarily DVD-educated) cinephilia, it is rarely acknowledged how much of that work cheerfully undercuts many of the long-held assumptions and pieties upon which it is built.
In his review of Letter from Siberia (1957), Bazin placed Marker at right angles to cinema proper, describing the film’s “primary material” as intelligence – specifically a “verbal intelligence” – rather than image. He dubbed Marker’s method a “horizontal” montage, “as opposed to traditional montage that plays with the sense of duration through the relationship of shot to shot”.
Here, claimed Bazin, “a given image doesn’t refer to the one that preceded it or the one that will follow, but rather it refers laterally, in some way, to what is said.” Thus the very thing which makes Letter “extraordinary”, in Bazin’s estimation, is also what makes it not-cinema. Looking for a term to describe it, Bazin hit upon a prophetic turn of phrase, writing that Marker’s film is, “to borrow Jean Vigo’s formulation of À propos de Nice (‘a documentary point of view’), an essay documented by film. The important word is ‘essay’, understood in the same sense that it has in literature – an essay at once historical and political, written by a poet as well.”
Marker’s canonisation has proceeded apace with that of the form of which he has become the exemplar. Whether used as critical/curatorial shorthand in reviews and programme notes, employed as a model by filmmakers or examined in theoretical depth in major retrospectives (this summer’s BFI Southbank programme, for instance, follows upon Andréa Picard’s two-part series ‘The Way of the Termite’ at TIFF Cinémathèque in 2009-2010, which drew inspiration from Jean-Pierre Gorin’s groundbreaking programme of the same title at Vienna Filmmuseum in 2007), the ‘essay film’ has attained in recent years widespread recognition as a particular, if perennially porous, mode of film practice. An appealingly simple formulation, the term has proved both taxonomically useful and remarkably elastic, allowing one to define a field of previously unassimilable objects while ranging far and wide throughout film history to claim other previously identified objects for this invented tradition.
It is crucial to note that the ‘essay film’ is not only a post-facto appellation for a kind of film practice that had not bothered to mark itself with a moniker, but also an invention and an intervention. While it has acquired its own set of canonical ‘texts’ that include the collected works of Marker, much of Godard – from the missive (the 52-minute Letter to Jane, 1972) to the massive (Histoire(s) de cinéma, 1988-98) – Welles’s F for Fake (1973) and Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), it has also poached on the territory of other, ‘sovereign’ forms, expanding its purview in accordance with the whims of its missionaries.
From documentary especially, Vigo’s aforementioned À propos de Nice, Ivens’s Rain (1929), Buñuel’s sardonic Las Hurdes (1933), Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955), Rouch and Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961); from the avant garde, Akerman’s Je, Tu, Il, Elle (1974), Straub/Huillet’s Trop tôt, trop tard (1982); from agitprop, Getino and Solanas’s The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), Portabella’s Informe general… (1976); and even from ‘pure’ fiction, for example Gorin’s provocative selection of Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909).
Just as within itself the essay film presents, in the words of Gorin, “the meandering of an intelligence that tries to multiply the entries and the exits into the material it has elected (or by which it has been elected),” so, without, its scope expands exponentially through the industrious activity of its adherents, blithely cutting across definitional borders and – as per the Manny Farberian concept which gave Gorin’s ‘Termite’ series its name – creating meaning precisely by eating away at its own boundaries. In the scope of its application and its association more with an (amorphous) sensibility as opposed to fixed rules, the essay film bears similarities to the most famous of all fabricated genres: film noir, which has been located both in its natural habitat of the crime thriller as well as in such disparate climates as melodramas, westerns and science fiction.
The essay film, however, has proved even more peripatetic: where noir was formulated from the films of a determinate historical period (no matter that the temporal goalposts are continually shifted), the essay film is resolutely unfixed in time; it has its choice of forebears. And while noir, despite its occasional shadings over into semi-documentary during the 1940s, remains bound to fictional narratives, the essay film moves blithely between the realms of fiction and non-fiction, complicating the terms of both.
“Here is a form that seems to accommodate the two sides of that divide at the same time, that can navigate from documentary to fiction and back, creating other polarities in the process between which it can operate,” writes Gorin. When Orson Welles, in the closing moments of his masterful meditation on authenticity and illusion F for Fake, chortles, “I did promise that for one hour, I’d tell you only the truth. For the past 17 minutes, I’ve been lying my head off,” he is expressing both the conjuror’s pleasure in a trick well played and the artist’s delight in a self-defined mode that is cheerfully impure in both form and, perhaps, intention.
Nevertheless, as the essay film merrily traipses through celluloid history it intersects with ‘pure cinema’ at many turns and its form as such owes much to one particularly prominent variety thereof.
The montage tradition
If the mystical strain described above represents the Dionysian side of pure cinema, Soviet montage was its Apollonian opposite: randomness, revelation and sensuous response countered by construction, forceful argumentation and didactic instruction.
No less than the mystics, however, the montagists were after essences. Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Pudovkin, along with their transnational associates and acolytes, sought to crystallise abstract concepts in the direct and purposeful juxtaposition of forceful, hard-edged images – the general made powerfully, viscerally immediate in the particular. Here, says Eisenstein, in the umbrella-wielding harpies who set upon the revolutionaries in October (1928), is bourgeois Reaction made manifest; here, in the serried ranks of soldiers proceeding as one down the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin (1925), is Oppression undisguised; here, in the condemned Potemkin sailor who wins over his imminent executioners with a cry of “Brothers!” – a moment powerfully invoked by Marker at the beginning of his magnum opus A Grin Without a Cat (1977) – is Solidarity emergent and, from it, the seeds of Revolution.
The relentlessly unidirectional focus of classical Soviet montage puts it methodologically and temperamentally at odds with the ruminative, digressive and playful qualities we associate with the essay film. So, too, the former’s fierce ideological certainty and cadre spirit contrast with that free play of the mind, the Montaigne-inspired meanderings of individual intelligence, that so characterise our image of the latter.
Beyond Marker’s personal interest in and inheritance from the Soviet masters, classical montage laid the foundations of the essay film most pertinently in its foregrounding of the presence, within the fabric of the film, of a directing intelligence. Conducting their experiments in film not through ‘pure’ abstraction but through narrative, the montagists made manifest at least two operative levels within the film: the narrative itself and the arrangement of that narrative by which the deeper structures that move it are made legible. Against the seamless, immersive illusionism of commercial cinema, montage was a key for decrypting those social forces, both overt and hidden, that govern human society.
And as such it was method rather than material that was the pathway to truth. Fidelity to the authentic – whether the accurate representation of historical events or the documentary flavouring of Eisensteinian typage – was important only insomuch as it provided the filmmaker with another tool to reach a considerably higher plane of reality.
Dziga Vertov’s Enthusiasm (1931)
Midway on their Marxian mission to change the world rather than interpret it, the montagists actively made the world even as they revealed it. In doing so they powerfully expressed the dialectic between control and chaos that would come to be not only one of the chief motors of the essay film but the crux of modernity itself.
Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), now claimed as the most venerable and venerated ancestor of the essay film (and this despite its prototypically purist claim to realise a ‘universal’ cinematic language “based on its complete separation from the language of literature and the theatre”) is the archetypal model of this high-modernist agon. While it is the turning of the movie projector itself and the penetrating gaze of Vertov’s kino-eye that sets the whirling dynamo of the city into motion, the recorder creating that which it records, that motion is also outside its control.
At the dawn of the cinematic century, the American writer Henry Adams saw in the dynamo both the expression of human mastery over nature and a conduit to mysterious, elemental powers beyond our comprehension. So, too, the modernist ambition expressed in literature, painting, architecture and cinema to capture a subject from all angles – to exhaust its wealth of surfaces, meanings, implications, resonances – collides with awe (or fear) before a plenitude that can never be encompassed.
Remove the high-modernist sense of mission and we can see this same dynamic as animating the essay film – recall that last, parenthetical term in Gorin’s formulation of the essay film, “multiply[ing] the entries and the exits into the material it has elected (or by which it has been elected)”. The nimble movements and multi-angled perspectives of the essay film are founded on this negotiation between active choice and passive possession; on the recognition that even the keenest insight pales in the face of an ultimate unknowability.
The other key inheritance the essay film received from the classical montage tradition, perhaps inevitably, was a progressive spirit, however variously defined. While Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938) amply and chillingly demonstrated that montage, like any instrumental apparatus, has no inherent ideological nature, hers were more the exceptions that proved the rule. (Though why, apart from ideological repulsiveness, should Riefenstahl’s plentifully fabricated ‘documentaries’ not be considered as essay films in their own right?)
The overwhelming fact remains that the great majority of those who drew upon the Soviet montagists for explicitly ideological ends (as opposed to Hollywood’s opportunistic swipings) resided on the left of the spectrum – and, in the montagists’ most notable successor in the period immediately following, retained their alignment with and inextricability from the state.
Progressive vs radical
The Griersonian documentary movement in Britain neutered the political and aesthetic radicalism of its more dynamic model in favour of paternalistic progressivism founded on conformity, class complacency and snobbery towards its own medium. But if it offered a far paler antecedent to the essay film than the Soviet montage tradition, it nevertheless represents an important stage in the evolution of the essay-film form, for reasons not unrelated to some of those rather staid qualities.
The Soviet montagists had created a vision of modernity racing into the future at pace with the social and spiritual liberation of its proletarian pilot-passenger, an aggressively public ideology of group solidarity. The Grierson school, by contrast, offered a domesticated image of an efficient, rational and productive modern industrial society based on interconnected but separate public and private spheres, as per the ideological values of middle-class liberal individualism.
The Soviet montagists had looked to forge a universal, ‘pure’ cinematic language, at least before the oppressive dictates of Stalinist socialist realism shackled them. The Grierson school, evincing a middle-class disdain for the popular and ‘low’ arts, sought instead to purify the sullied medium of cinema by importing extra-cinematic prestige: most notably Night Mail (1936), with its Auden-penned, Britten-scored ode to the magic of the mail, or Humphrey Jennings’s salute to wartime solidarity A Diary for Timothy (1945), with its mildly sententious E.M. Forster narration.
What this domesticated dynamism and retrograde pursuit of high-cultural bona fides achieved, however, was to mingle a newfound cinematic language (montage) with a traditionally literary one (narration); and, despite the salutes to state-oriented communality, to re-introduce the individual, idiosyncratic voice as the vehicle of meaning – as the mediating intelligence that connects the viewer to the images viewed.
In Night Mail especially there is, in the whimsy of the Auden text and the film’s synchronisation of private time and public history, an intimation of the essay film’s musing, reflective voice as the chugging rhythm of the narration timed to the speeding wheels of the train gives way to a nocturnal vision of solitary dreamers bedevilled by spectral monsters, awakening in expectation of the postman’s knock with a “quickening of the heart/for who can bear to be forgot?”
It’s a curiously disquieting conclusion: this unsettling, anxious vision of disappearance that takes on an even darker shade with the looming spectre of war – one that rhymes, five decades on, with the wistful search of Marker’s narrator in Sans soleil, seeking those fleeting images which “quicken the heart” in a world where wars both past and present have been forgotten, subsumed in a modern society built upon the systematic banishment of memory.
It is, of course, with the seminal post-war collaborations between Marker and Alain Resnais that the essay film proper emerges. In contrast to the striving culture-snobbery of the Griersonian documentary, the Resnais-Marker collaborations (and the Resnais solo documentary shorts that preceded them) inaugurate a blithe, seemingly effortless dialogue between cinema and the other arts in both their subjects (painting, sculpture) and their assorted creative personnel (writers Paul Éluard, Jean Cayrol, Raymond Queneau, composers Darius Milhaud and Hanns Eisler). This also marks the point where the revolutionary line of the Soviets and the soft, statist liberalism of the British documentarians give way to a more free-floating but staunchly oppositional leftism, one derived as much from a spirit of humanistic inquiry as from ideological affiliation.
Related to this was the form’s problems with official patronage. Originally conceived as commissions by various French government or government-affiliated bodies, the Resnais-Marker films famously ran into trouble from French censors: Les statues meurent aussi (1953) for its condemnation of French colonialism, Night and Fog for its shots of Vichy policemen guarding deportation camps; the former film would have its second half lopped off before being cleared for screening, the latter its offending shots removed.
Appropriately, it is at this moment that the emphasis of the essay film begins to shift away from tactile presence – the whirl of the city, the rhythm of the rain, the workings of industry – to felt absence. The montagists had marvelled at the workings of human creations which raced ahead irrespective of human efforts; here, the systems created by humanity to master the world write, in their very functioning, an epitaph for those things extinguished in the act of mastering them. The African masks preserved in the Musée de l’Homme in Les statues meurent aussi speak of a bloody legacy of vanquished and conquered civilisations; the labyrinthine archival complex of the Bibliothèque Nationale in the sardonically titled Toute la mémoire du monde (1956) sparks a disquisition on all that is forgotten in the act of cataloguing knowledge; the miracle of modern plastics saluted in the witty, industrially commissioned Le Chant du styrène (1958) regresses backwards to its homely beginnings; in Night and Fog an unprecedentedly enormous effort of human organisation marshals itself to actively produce a dreadful, previously unimaginable nullity.
To overstate the case, loss is the primary motor of the modern essay film: loss of belief in the image’s ability to faithfully reflect reality; loss of faith in the cinema’s ability to capture life as it is lived; loss of illusions about cinema’s ‘purity’, its autonomy from the other arts or, for that matter, the world.
“You never know what you may be filming,” notes one of Marker’s narrating surrogates in A Grin Without a Cat, as footage of the Chilean equestrian team at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics offers a glimpse of a future member of the Pinochet junta. The image and sound captured at the time of filming offer one facet of reality; it is only with this lateral move outside that reality that the future reality it conceals can speak.
What will distinguish the essay film, as Bazin noted, is not only its ability to make the image but also its ability to interrogate it, to dispel the illusion of its sovereignty and see it as part of a matrix of meaning that extends beyond the screen. No less than were the montagists, the film-essayists seek the motive forces of modern society not by crystallising eternal verities in powerful images but by investigating that ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic relationship between our regime of images and the realities it both reveals and occludes.
— Andrew Tracy
1.À propos de Nice
Jean Vigo, 1930
Few documentaries have achieved the cult status of the 22-minute A propos de Nice, co-directed by Jean Vigo and cameraman Boris Kaufman at the beginning of their careers. The film retains a spontaneous, apparently haphazard, quality yet its careful montage combines a strong realist drive, lyrical dashes – helped by Marc Perrone’s accordion music – and a clear political agenda.
In today’s era, in which the Côte d’Azur has become a byword for hedonistic consumption, it’s refreshing to see a film that systematically undermines its glossy surface. Using images sometimes ‘stolen’ with hidden cameras, A propos de Nice moves between the city’s main sites of pleasure: the Casino, the Promenade des Anglais, the Hotel Negresco and the carnival. Occasionally the filmmakers remind us of the sea, the birds, the wind in the trees but mostly they contrast people: the rich play tennis, the poor boules; the rich have tea, the poor gamble in the (then) squalid streets of the Old Town.
As often, women bear the brunt of any critique of bourgeois consumption: a rich old woman’s head is compared to an ostrich, others grin as they gaze up at phallic factory chimneys; young women dance frenetically, their crotch to the camera. In the film’s most famous image, an elegant woman is ‘stripped’ by the camera to reveal her naked body – not quite matched by a man’s shoes vanishing to display his naked feet to the shoe-shine.
An essay film avant la lettre, A propos de Nice ends on Soviet-style workers’ faces and burning furnaces. The message is clear, even if it has not been heeded by history.
— Ginette Vincendeau
2.A Diary for Timothy
Humphrey Jennings, 1945
A Diary for Timothy takes the form of a journal addressed to the eponymous Timothy James Jenkins, born on 3 September 1944, exactly five years after Britain’s entry into World War II. The narrator, Michael Redgrave, a benevolent offscreen presence, informs young Timothy about the momentous events since his birth and later advises that, even when the war is over, there will be “everyday danger”.
The subjectivity and speculative approach maintained throughout are more akin to the essay tradition than traditional propaganda in their rejection of mere glib conveyance of information or thunderous hectoring. Instead Jennings invites us quietly to observe the nuances of everyday life as Britain enters the final chapter of the war. Against the momentous political backdrop, otherwise routine, everyday activities are ascribed new profundity as the Welsh miner Geronwy, Alan the farmer, Bill the railway engineer and Peter the convalescent fighter pilot go about their daily business.
Within the confines of the Ministry of Information’s remit – to lift the spirits of a battle-weary nation – and the loose narrative framework of Timothy’s first six months, Jennings finds ample expression for the kind of formal experiment that sets his work apart from that of other contemporary documentarians. He worked across film, painting, photography, theatrical design, journalism and poetry; in Diary his protean spirit finds expression in a manner that transgresses the conventional parameters of wartime propaganda, stretching into film poem, philosophical reflection, social document, surrealistic ethnographic observation and impressionistic symphony. Managing to keep to the right side of sentimentality, it still makes for potent viewing.
— Catherine McGahan
3.Toute la mémoire du monde
Alain Resnais, 1956
In the opening credits of Toute la mémoire du monde, alongside the director’s name and that of producer Pierre Braunberger, one reads the mysterious designation “Groupe des XXX”. This Group of Thirty was an assembly of filmmakers who mobilised in the early 1950s to defend the “style, quality and ambitious subject matter” of short films in post-war France; the signatories of its 1953 ‘Declaration’ included Resnais, Chris Marker and Agnès Varda. The success of the campaign contributed to a golden age of short filmmaking that would last a decade and form the crucible of the French essay film.
A 22-minute poetic documentary about the old French Bibliothèque Nationale, Toute la mémoire du monde is a key work in this strand of filmmaking and one which can also be seen as part of a loose ‘trilogy of memory’ in Resnais’s early documentaries. Les statues meurent aussi (co-directed with Chris Marker) explored cultural memory as embodied in African art and the depredations of colonialism; Night and Fog was a seminal reckoning with the historical memory of the Nazi death camps. While less politically controversial than these earlier works, Toute la mémoire du monde’s depiction of the Bibliothèque Nationale is still oddly suggestive of a prison, with its uniformed guards and endless corridors. In W.G. Sebald’s 2001 novel Austerlitz, directly after a passage dedicated to Resnais’s film, the protagonist describes his uncertainty over whether, when using the library, he “was on the Islands of the Blest, or, on the contrary, in a penal colony”.
Resnais explores the workings of the library through the effective device of following a book from arrival and cataloguing to its delivery to a reader (the book itself being something of an in-joke: a mocked-up travel guide to Mars in the Petite Planète series Marker was then editing for Editions du Seuil). With Resnais’s probing, mobile camerawork and a commentary by French writer Remo Forlani, Toute la mémoire du monde transforms the library into a mysterious labyrinth, something between an edifice and an organism: part brain and part tomb.
— Chris Darke
4.The House is Black
(Khaneh siah ast) Forough Farrokhzad, 1963
Before the House of Makhmalbaf there was The House is Black. Called “the greatest of all Iranian films” by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who helped translate the subtitles from Farsi into English, this 20-minute black-and-white essay film by feminist poet Farrokhzad was shot in a leper colony near Tabriz in northern Iran and has been heralded as the touchstone of the Iranian New Wave.
The buildings of the Baba Baghi colony are brick and peeling whitewash but a student asked to write a sentence using the word ‘house’ offers Khaneh siah ast: the house is black. His hand, seen in close-up, is one of many in the film; rather than objects of medical curiosity, these hands – some fingerless, many distorted by the disease – are agents, always in movement, doing, making, exercising, praying. In putting white words on the blackboard, the student makes part of the film; in the next shots, the film’s credits appear, similarly handwritten on the same blackboard.
As they negotiate the camera’s gaze and provide the soundtrack by singing, stamping and wheeling a barrow, the lepers are co-authors of the film. Farrokhzad echoes their prayers, heard and seen on screen, with her voiceover, which collages religious texts, beginning with the passage from Psalm 55 famously set to music by Mendelssohn (“O for the wings of a dove”).
In the conjunctions between Farrokhzad’s poetic narration and diegetic sound, including tanbur-playing, an intense assonance arises. Its beat is provided by uniquely lyrical associative editing that would influence Abbas Kiarostami, who quotes Farrokhzad’s poem ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’ in his eponymous film. Repeated shots of familiar bodily movement, made musical, move the film insistently into the viewer’s body: it is infectious. Posing a question of aesthetics, The House Is Black uses the contagious gaze of cinema to dissolve the screen between Us and Them.
— Sophie Mayer
5.Letter to Jane: An Investigation About a Still
Jean-Luc Godard & Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972
With its invocation of Brecht (“Uncle Bertolt”), rejection of visual pleasure (for 52 minutes we’re mostly looking at a single black-and-white still) and discussion of the role of intellectuals in “the revolution”, Letter to Jane is so much of its time as to appear untranslatable to the present except as a curio from a distant era of radical cinema. Between 1969 and 1971, Godard and Gorin made films collectively as part of the Dziga Vertov Group before they returned, in 1972, to the mainstream with Tout va bien, a big-budget film about the aftermath of May 1968 featuring leftist stars Yves Montand and Jane Fonda. It was to the latter that Godard and Gorin directed their Letter after seeing a news photograph of her on a solidarity visit to North Vietnam in August 1972.
Intended to accompany the US release of Tout va bien, Letter to Jane is ‘a letter’ only in as much as it is fairly conversational in tone, with Godard and Gorin delivering their voiceovers in English. It’s stylistically more akin to the ‘blackboard films’ of the time, with their combination of pedagogical instruction and stern auto-critique.
It’s also an inspired semiological reading of a media image and a reckoning with the contradictions of celebrity activism. Godard and Gorin examine the image’s framing and camera angle and ask why Fonda is the ‘star’ of the photograph while the Vietnamese themselves remain faceless or out of focus? And what of her expression of compassionate concern? This “expression of an expression” they trace back, via an elaboration of the Kuleshov effect, through other famous faces – Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Lillian Gish and Falconetti – concluding that it allows for “no reverse shot” and serves only to bolster Western “good conscience”.
Letter to Jane is ultimately concerned with the same question that troubled philosophers such as Levinas and Derrida: what’s at stake ethically when one claims to speak “in place of the other”? Any contemporary critique of celebrity activism – from Bono and Geldof to Angelina Jolie – should start here, with a pair of gauchiste trolls muttering darkly beneath a press shot of ‘Hanoi Jane’.
— Chris Darke
6. F for Fake
Orson Welles, 1973
Those who insist it was all downhill for Orson Welles after Citizen Kane would do well to take a close look at this film made more than three decades later, in its own idiosyncratic way a masterpiece just as innovative as his better-known feature debut.
Perhaps the film’s comparative and undeserved critical neglect is due to its predominantly playful tone, or perhaps it’s because it is a low-budget, hard-to-categorise, deeply personal work that mixes original material with plenty of footage filmed by others – most extensively taken from a documentary by François Reichenbach about Clifford Irving and his bogus biography of his friend Elmyr de Hory, an art forger who claimed to have painted pictures attributed to famous names and hung in the world’s most prestigious galleries.
If the film had simply offered an account of the hoaxes perpetrated by that disreputable duo, it would have been entertaining enough but, by means of some extremely inventive, innovative and inspired editing, Welles broadens his study of fakery to take in his own history as a ‘charlatan’ – not merely his lifelong penchant for magician’s tricks but also the 1938 radio broadcast of his news-report adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds – as well as observations on Howard Hughes, Pablo Picasso and the anonymous builders of Chartres cathedral. So it is that Welles contrives to conjure up, behind a colourful cloak of consistently entertaining mischief, a rueful meditation on truth and falsehood, art and authorship – a subject presumably dear to his heart following Pauline Kael’s then recent attempts to persuade the world that Herman J. Mankiewicz had been the real creative force behind Kane.
As a riposte to that thesis (albeit never framed as such), F for Fake is subtle, robust, supremely erudite and never once bitter; the darkest moment – as Welles contemplates the serene magnificence of Chartres – is at once an uncharacteristic but touchingly heartfelt display of humility and a poignant memento mori. And it is in this delicate balancing of the autobiographical with the universal, as well as in the dazzling deployment of cinematic form to illustrate and mirror content, that the film works its once unique, now highly influential magic.
— Geoff Andrew
7.How to Live in the German Federal Republic
(Leben – BRD) Harun Farocki, 1990
Harun Farocki’s portrait of West Germany in 32 simulations from training sessions has no commentary, just the actions themselves in all their surreal beauty, one after the other. The Bundesrepublik Deutschland is shown as a nation of people who can deal with everything because they have been prepared – taught how to react properly in every possible situation.
We know how birth works; how to behave in kindergarten; how to chat up girls, boys or whatever we fancy (for we’re liberal-minded, if only in principle); how to look for a job and maybe live without finding one; how to wiggle our arses in the hottest way possible when we pole-dance, or manage a hostage crisis without things getting (too) bloody. Whatever job we do, we know it by heart; we also know how to manage whatever kind of psychological breakdown we experience; and we are also prepared for the end, and even have an idea about how our burial will go. This is the nation: one of fearful people in dire need of control over their one chance of getting it right.
Viewed from the present, How to Live in the German Federal Republic is revealed as the archetype of many a Farocki film in the decades to follow, for example Die Umschulung (1994), Der Auftritt (1996) or Nicht ohne Risiko (2004), all of which document as dispassionately as possible different – not necessarily simulated – scenarios of social interactions related to labour and capital. For all their enlightening beauty, none of these ever came close to How to Live in the German Federal Republic which, depending on one’s mood, can play like an absurd comedy or the most gut-wrenching drama. Yet one disquieting thing is certain: How to Live in the German Federal Republic didn’t age – our lives still look the same.
— Olaf Möller
8.One Man’s War
(La Guerre d’un seul homme) Edgardo Cozarinsky, 1982
One Man’s War proves that an auteur film can be made without writing a line, recording a sound or shooting a single frame. It’s easy to point to the ‘extraordinary’ character of the film, given its combination of materials that were not made to cohabit; there couldn’t be a less plausible dialogue than the one Cozarinsky establishes between the newsreels shot during the Nazi occupation of Paris and the Parisian diaries of novelist and Nazi officer Ernst Jünger. There’s some truth to Pascal Bonitzer’s assertion in Cahiers du cinéma in 1982 that the principle of the documentary was inverted here, since it is the images that provide a commentary for the voice.
But that observation still doesn’t pin down the uniqueness of a work that forces history through a series of registers, styles and dimensions, wiping out the distance between reality and subjectivity, propaganda and literature, cinema and journalism, daily life and dream, and establishing the idea not so much of communicating vessels as of contaminating vessels.
To enquire about the essayistic dimension of One Man’s War is to submit it to a test of purity against which the film itself is rebelling. This is no ars combinatoria but systems of collision and harmony; organic in their temporal development and experimental in their procedural eagerness. It’s like a machine created to die instantly; neither Cozarinsky nor anyone else could repeat the trick, as is the case with all great avant-garde works.
By blurring the genre of his literary essays, his fictional films, his archival documentaries, his literary fictions, Cozarinsky showed he knew how to reinvent the erasure of borders. One Man’s War is not a film about the Occupation but a meditation on the different forms in which that Occupation can be represented.
—Sergio Wolf. Translated by Mar Diestro-Dópido
Chris Marker, 1982
There are many moments to quicken the heart in Sans soleil but one in particular demonstrates the method at work in Marker’s peerless film. An unseen female narrator reads from letters sent to her by a globetrotting cameraman named Sandor Krasna (Marker’s nom de voyage), one of which muses on the 11th-century Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon.
As we hear of Shōnagon’s “list of elegant things, distressing things, even of things not worth doing”, we watch images of a missile being launched and a hovering bomber. What’s the connection? There is none. Nothing here fixes word and image in illustrative lockstep; it’s in the space between them that Sans soleil makes room for the spectator to drift, dream and think – to inimitable effect.
Sans soleil was Marker’s return to a personal mode of filmmaking after more than a decade in militant cinema. His reprise of the epistolary form looks back to earlier films such as Letter from Siberia (1958) but the ‘voice’ here is both intimate and removed. The narrator’s reading of Krasna’s letters flips the first person to the third, using ‘he’ instead of ‘I’. Distance and proximity in the words mirror, multiply and magnify both the distances travelled and the time spanned in the images, especially those of the 1960s and its lost dreams of revolutionary social change.
While it’s handy to define Sans soleil as an ‘essay film’, there’s something about the dry term that doesn’t do justice to the experience of watching it. After Marker’s death last year, when writing programme notes on the film, I came up with a line that captures something of what it’s like to watch Sans soleil: “a mesmerising, lucid and lovely river of film, which, like the river of the ancients, is never the same when one steps into it a second time”.
— Chris Darke
Black Audio Film Collective, 1986
Made at the time of civil unrest in Birmingham, this key example of the essay film at its most complex remains relevant both formally and thematically. Handsworth Songs is no straightforward attempt to provide answers as to why the riots happened; instead, using archive film spliced with made and found footage of the events and the media and popular reaction to them, it creates a poetic sense of context.
The film is an example of counter-media in that it slows down the demand for either immediate explanation or blanket condemnation. Its stillness allows the history of immigration and the subsequent hostility of the media and the police to the black and Asian population to be told in careful detail.
One repeated scene shows a young black man running through a group of white policemen who surround him on all sides. He manages to break free several times before being wrestled to the ground; if only for one brief, utopian moment, an entirely different history of race in the UK is opened up.
The waves of post-war immigration are charted in the stories told both by a dominant (and frequently repressive) televisual narrative and, importantly, by migrants themselves. Interviews mingle with voiceover, music accompanies the machines that the Windrush generation work at. But there are no definitive answers here, only, as the Black Audio Film Collective memorably suggests, “the ghosts of songs”.
— Nina Power
11.Los Angeles Plays Itself
Thom Andersen, 2003
One of the attractions that drew early film pioneers out west, besides the sunlight and the industrial freedom, was the versatility of the southern Californian landscape: with sea, snowy mountains, desert, fruit groves, Spanish missions, an urban downtown and suburban boulevards all within a 100-mile radius, the Los Angeles basin quickly and famously became a kind of giant open-air film studio, available and pliant.
Of course, some people actually live there too. “Sometimes I think that gives me the right to criticise,” growls native Angeleno Andersen in his forensic three-hour prosecution of moving images of the movie city, whose mounting litany of complaints – couched in Encke King’s gravelly, near-parodically irritated voiceover, and sometimes organised, as Stuart Klawans wrote in The Nation, “in the manner of a saloon orator” – belies a sly humour leavening a radically serious intent.
Inspired in part by Mark Rappaport’s factual essay appropriations of screen fictions (Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, 1993; From the Journals of Jean Seberg, 1995), as well as Godard’s Histoire(s) de cinéma, this “city symphony in reverse” asserts public rights to our screen discourse through its magpie method as well as its argument. (Today you could rebrand it ‘Occupy Hollywood’.) Tinseltown malfeasance is evidenced across some 200 different film clips, from offences against geography and slurs against architecture to the overt historical mythologies of Chinatown (1974), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and L.A. Confidential (1997), in which the city’s class and cultural fault-lines are repainted “in crocodile tears” as doleful tragedies of conspiracy, promoting hopelessness in the face of injustice.
Andersen’s film by contrast spurs us to independent activism, starting with the reclamation of our gaze: “What if we watch with our voluntary attention, instead of letting the movies direct us?” he asks, peering beyond the foregrounding of character and story. And what if more movies were better and more useful, helping us see our world for what it is? Los Angeles Plays Itself grows most moving – and useful – extolling the Los Angeles neorealism Andersen has in mind: stories of “so many men unneeded, unwanted”, as he says over a scene from Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), “in a world in which there is so much to be done”.
— Nick Bradshaw
12.La Morte Rouge
Víctor Erice, 2006
The famously unprolific Spanish director Víctor Erice may remain best known for his full-length fiction feature The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), but his other films are no less rewarding. Having made a brilliant foray into the fertile territory located somewhere between ‘documentary’ and ‘fiction’ with The Quince Tree Sun (1992), in this half-hour film made for the ‘Correspondences’ exhibition exploring resemblances in the oeuvres of Erice and Kiarostami, the relationship between reality and artifice becomes his very subject.
A ‘small’ work, it comprises stills, archive footage, clips from an old Sherlock Holmes movie, a few brief new scenes – mostly without actors – and music by Mompou and (for once, superbly used) Arvo Pärt. If its tone – it’s introduced as a “soliloquy” – and scale are modest, its thematic range and philosophical sophistication are considerable.
The title is the name of the Québécois village that is the setting for The Scarlet Claw (1944), a wartime Holmes mystery starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce which was the first movie Erice ever saw, taken by his sister to the Kursaal cinema in San Sebastian.
For the five-year-old, the experience was a revelation: unable to distinguish the ‘reality’ of the newsreel from that of the nightmare world of Roy William Neill’s film, he not only learned that death and murder existed but noted that the adults in the audience, presumably privy to some secret knowledge denied him, were unaffected by the corpses on screen. Had this something to do with war? Why was La Morte Rouge not on any map? And what did it signify that postman Potts was not, in fact, Potts but the killer – and an actor (whatever that was) to boot?
From such personal reminiscences – evoked with wondrous intimacy in the immaculate Castillian of the writer-director’s own wry narration – Erice fashions a lyrical meditation on themes that have underpinned his work from Beehive to Broken Windows (2012): time and change, memory and identity, innocence and experience, war and death. And because he understands, intellectually and emotionally, that the time-based medium he himself works in can reveal unforgettably vivid realities that belong wholly to the realm of the imaginary, La Morte Rouge is a great film not only about the power of cinema but about life itself.
— Geoff Andrew