By Dharma Senn
We walk along streets for a considerable part of our lives. Metaphorically, of course, as well. One foot in front of the other, carrying ourselves towards our goals. Some prefer bikes or cars instead. Others like to take their time.
But metaphors really have no place on nights where the autumn cold makes us feel giggly, and the lights of advertisements make us contemplative. Faces pass us by, faces we forget the instant they move out of our view. Some of them linger for a few more seconds in the back of our minds and then vanish softly.
Our feet are planted firmly on the ground. The camera accompanying us moves silently about. People look at its lens, see their own reflection in the camera’s eye. Zürich is always full of people, even at night. The city never sleeps.
“The drizzling rain of advertising that spills out of industrial life transforms into constellations on a foreign sky,“ (1990, 19) Siegfried Kracauer remarks over our shoulders, walking beside us on our nightly stroll. The German film theorist, criticist, cultural philosopher, sociologist, and general jack of all trades realized this in 1990, but his fascination with the cobbles goes further back than that. It was in a time of rising industrialization, of cities growing hungry and expanding when Kracauer started thinking about faceless masses, anonymous identities, all squished into a blinding mess in the big machine called capitalism. Masses flowing from one place to another, from one film shot to another, masses taking over the streets.
“The street in the extended sense of the word is not only the arena of fleeting impressions and chance encounters but a place where the flow of life is bound to assert itself,” Kracauer said in 1960 (72). Film, he argues, is the only medium with an affinity for said flow of life. The life on the street is never determined by film, however: “it remains an unfixable flow which carries fearful uncertainties and alluring excitements” (73). A lot of words. They flow too, in a way, and become part of the mass that constitutes Kracauer’s ideas. He senses our dissatisfaction with grand gestures and begins to illustrate with the help of an example.
Karl Grune’s DIE STRASSE from 1923, which started off a genre of street films that quickly gained popularity in the 1920s of the Weimarer Republic, presents us with a middle-aged, bourgeois hero who wants to escape his boring life and consequently his boring wife. The street calls to him. He looks out the window and is met with a montage of what the street might be: rushing cars, fireworks, crowds, roller coasters, confusion, parties, fun. He goes out onto the street and meets: prostitution, card sharpers, murder.
“Life, an agitated sea, threatens to drown him,“ (74) Kracauer reiterates, a little amused perhaps. Anarchy and chaos prevail on the nightly streets on screens in the 1920s. Occasionally, chaos seems to prevail in Kracauer’s elaborations as well. But it is an artificial street he muses about, built in a studio, surrounded by systems of light and sound. Is this what the street is supposed to be then, in the eyes of a filmmaker? Organized chaos? Does the camera care? Do we care?
We are silently pushing through crowds. Festivities yes, underground crime no. But that is what cinema is here for, is it not? Kracauer leaves us be, vanishes into a small alleyway. Maybe he’ll get mugged. Maybe he won’t.
We continue on our walk through lights and masses of people, through laughter and tears and words spilling out into the cold. We walk past a tobacco shop, a small figure behind the counter, cleaning a pipe. Her face seems familiar and catches our eyes for the fraction of a second it takes us to leave the gleaming windows behind. A woman sidles up to us, accompanied by a bowl-shaped haircut that almost constitutes its own personality. She smiles knowingly at us and keeps pace. She is part of a generation of filmmakers who, with the help of mobile, smaller cameras, decided to go outside and turn their backs on big-budget studio productions. Film is her handiwork, and they wear her name, Agnès Varda, on their sleeves. Rue Daguerre is the name of the street she grew up in and it is the street she captures in her 1975 film DAGUERREOTYPES. It is a close and careful portrayal of the shopkeepers living there, surrounding her, being part of the cobbles. Sometimes she watches them from a distance, sometimes carefully posed like paintings would be, standing still, waiting.
Sometimes she watches them more closely, standing in their shops, contemplating their faces, hands, shy gazes towards the camera. These are individual people with individual stories, standing apart from Kracauer’s anonymous masses, and solitude prevails over chaos. The street is neither a threat nor a temptation. It serves as the ground for a careful study of its citizens. Varda talks decidedly less than Kracauer does in his texts, as she asks the shopkeepers how they got here, how they met their spouse. If they dream. And the camera asks: What do their hands do?
“Mrs “Blue Thistle” with the meekness of a captive fascinates me more than the shop where her husband makes his perfumes,” Varda says quietly as we watch Mrs Blue Thistle stand by the window of the shop, gazing out into the street, watching passersby walk by, some slower than others. The street transforms from a place of going out to a place of settling in. Maybe Mrs Blue Thistle feels at home here. And maybe, as Varda suggests, she doesn’t. Varda is present in her own film, her voice, her editing, a quick reflection in mirrored glass. The street looks back at her, gazes find themselves looking at the lens of the camera. We watch Mrs Blue Thistle, and she watches us.
Varda leaves our side, contemplating a man standing in the corner, looking nervously at his watch. Maybe he is nervous because she observes him. Or maybe he is just waiting for someone he’s afraid could not turn up after all.
We continue on our stroll but come to a halt in front of a cinema. A poster hangs on its doors, a child flying through the sky, holding onto a merry-go-round. The film is called ZÜRCHER TAGEBUCH and has been directed by Stefan Haupt in 2020. Now we watch images of our own street flutter across the screen, faces we might recognize, paths we might have taken before. The street transforms into a hub of anxieties and social fear. Are we doing everything we can to help other people in dismay? A group of adults enjoy themselves at a carnival. How do I keep up with everything that’s happening out there? Masses of rainbows attending last year’s Pride dance along the river. What do I do with the pressure of doing nothing? Am I doing nothing? Can I help at all? Women take to the street in the Frauenstreik, demanding, marking their presence.
Fear, terror, a glimmer of hope, stress, pressure, the world is burning, bombs are exploding, Zürich in the evening sun, Zürich as we know it, Zürich standing peacefully. The film shows us voices and bodies that belong to them, forming a plurality of concerns, venting their suspicions, uneasiness, struggles. And they are our thoughts as well, things everyone deals with, things most people face. We are part of this society; We are part of this street. It is ours. We recognize it.
The street can take on as many faces as it carries passersby. It is a point of convergence, coincidence, reflection. A point of inclusion and exclusion, of watching and being watched, of forgetting and remembering faces. The camera converges the street into a symbol for someone else, or for us, an image of our society from which we read our surroundings in hopes of an objective distance. But where is the street we see on screen? Is it real, is it distant, is it ours? Are we part of the mass, are we excluded from it? Who are we looking at, and who is looking back at us, and who is holding the camera?
Are we looking for something, or are we searching for ourselves?
Kracauer, Siegfried. «Lichtreklame», 1990.
Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality,
Oxford University Press, 1960.
Grune, Karl. Die Strasse. 1923. Filmportal, https://www.filmportal.de/node/33525/gallery. Accessed 22 September 2020.
Haupt, Stefan. Zürcher Tagebuch. 2020. Zürcher Tagebuch, https://www.zuerchertagebuch-film.ch/bilderundstimmen.html. Accessed 22 September 2020.
Varda, Agnès. Daguerreotypes. 1975. Filmgrab, https://film-grab.com/2015/07/01/daguerreotypes/#bwg749/46105 / https://film-grab.com/2015/07/01/daguerreotypes/ Accessed 22 September 2020.
Die Strasse. Directed by Karl Grune, UFA, 1923.
Daguerreotypes. Directed by Agnès Varda, Ciné-tamaris, 1975.
Zürcher Tagebuch. Directed by Stefan Haupt, Fontana Film, 2020.