Theses Doctoral

Ghost Writer: Béla Balázs's Hauntology of Film

Polonyi, Eszter

The Hungarian-born Béla Balázs was an integral part of the film and media culture of the 1920s and 1930s. He is widely recognized as the author of three books of film theory. The three books are regularly excerpted in anthologies, two of them recently appeared in English translation (the third was translated in the 1952), and they have been the subject of several article-length studies. Few treatments of Weimar film and media fail mention them, even if only in passing. As unavoidable as Balázs has become, his books rarely withstand close analysis. Scholars tend to discuss his work in order to demonstrate the limits of “early” statements on film and often use Balázs as a foil to other, more conceptually mature film theorization. As a film theorist, Balázs did not amount to much. Still, no one has ventured an alternative lens through which to understand this seminal figure.
This dissertation treats Balázs from the viewpoint of film production. While posterity has looked to Balázs to establish coherence within our conception of “classical” film aesthetics, his contemporaries had other reasons to read his work. During the 1920s, Balázs collaborated with several of the practitioners responsible for making the most definitive films of the Weimar era. He worked on approximately two dozen sets during this decade. His opinion was sought out by major production companies. His name was recommended for a range of genres. The films on which he worked had afterlives in remakes. He was invited to film schools, research labs and film congresses. Because of his skill set, Balázs was often brought in at pivotal junctures in film production. More than once his intervention rescued a film from financial ruin or censorship. The prominent name Balázs made for himself was made on the ground and in the film studio.
The skills Balázs brought to the studio were related to his practice as literary author. The first chapter of the dissertation demonstrates that English-language scholarship has consistently ignored Balázs's literary work. Reviewing his reception within the discourse of the history of early film theory and Area Studies, it proposes that Balázs continued to self-identify as “author” [Filmautor] with reference to his function in the film industry. It ends by introducing the aspect of film production to which Balázs arguably most contributed: the film scenario. The second focuses on the scenario. Spanning the decade during which the scenario formally emerged as an operational document, Balázs's work proved invaluable to the German film industry as it introduced a bird's eye point of view from which total control could, in principle, be asserted. In practice, however, the command the scenarist had over the image was nominal, as Balázs experienced repeatedly when encountering the final version of his film. The scenarist's lack of authority is demonstrated in the legally ambivalent status of their claim to the film, as demonstrated by a discussion of Berthold Brecht's copyright dispute over Balázs's co-authored adaptation of his Threepenny Opera play. As with Brecht, Balázs's point of view as author gave him a false impression of command over image production. No matter how meticulous his plan for the film, the image on screen inevitably differed from his imagined version.
Balázs's film aesthetics must be read with reference to his work as scenarist. Balázs repeatedly stresses that the film image is embodied. The last two chapters investigate the significance of the female body to this conception of film. One chapter responds to a crucial insight by the historian Erica Carter who proposes to read his books with reference to the phenomenon of the New Woman, a figure of emancipation she finds among his literary colleagues and partners. Broadening the range of work surveyed to include his literary and theatrical production in Hungarian, the chapter argues that while Balázs often forged literary partnership with women, he treated then not as equals so much as vessels, mediums of material surfaces for his intellectual and aesthetic expression. The brutal disregard Balázs had for his female partners is demonstrated in the final chapter with a close reading of a film scripted by Balázs, Miss Else (1929). Miss Else was the final film in a series of collaborations between Balázs and the Austrian actress Elisabeth Bergner. The film is a psychological portrait of a young woman who is emotionally and mentally destroyed by a set of instructions she receives in a telegram. Hit by a sudden bout of “hysterical” voicelessness, Else is demonstrated to mimic the condition of the silent film actress whose ability to act is destroyed by the fragmentary narrative format of the scenario.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Elcott, Noam M
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 22, 2017