My grandfather Karl Hofmann (1873-1944) worked for many years in the Apollo cinema on the Helenenstrasse in Limbach/Saxony. I knew him towards the end of his life, with his artist’s hat, his walking stick, his broad gold wedding ring that from time to time would go into pawn in Chemnitz but always came back safely. My grandfather was the film explainer and piano player in Limbach. They still had those, back then.
It is the mid-1930s, and Gert Hofmann is a small boy growing up in Limbach-Saxony, a bleak small town not so far from the Czech border. In those difficult economic times of inflation, unemployment, and gloom, the Hofmann family is barely making ends meet, but the family is enlivened—not always in a good way—by the ‘artist’ in their midst: the idiosyncratic Karl Hofmann (Grandfather), ‘film explainer’ in Limbach’s cinema the Apollo.
Grandfather is a man of indefatigable energy for the cinema, regaling anyone who will listen about film art, his favourite silent film actors, his cinematic views on life. Film is his grand passion and his purpose—consequently, The Film Explainer is replete with mentions of specific films, often described in loving detail by Grandfather. At times the narrative is almost the textual equivalent of a showreel, with snippets of everything from Sumurun (“Of course we’re all dying to see what Paul Wegener will look like as the sultan”) to L’Âge d’Or (Grandfather to his friend/disciple Herr Cosimo: “if your memory’s gone, and you’ve even forgotten that wonderful film, it’s simply not possible to have a conversation with you!”) to Asta Nielsen’s Vanina: “I remember it as though it were only yesterday! Asta Nielsen in a silk nightie with lace trimmings of the kind you hardly ever see nowadays. She plays the daughter of a general who has fallen in love with a young revolutionary, and …”
Die Asta is Karl Hofmann’s favourite actress, “for reasons he didn’t want to divulge”. (“Those reasons, Grandmother said, are her small but shapely breasts.”) Asta Nielsen is the actress most mentioned in The Film Explainer, with Grandfather rhapsodizing over many of her films. Das Feuer of 1914, which Grandfather says he has seen a dozen times, is singled out for particular praise. His commentary demonstrates Grandfather’s unfaltering enthusiasm at its best:
You have to picture Nielsen standing next to her witch-like mother, who’s crept into a black shawl. Asta Nielsen is wearing a luminous nightgown trimmed with lace, and holding a candelabra in her hand. If you consider that barely a couple of years ago Nielsen so hated herself that she wouldn’t allow herself to be photographed! What a transformation! To either side, her astonishing sleeves hang down to the floor. She has a page boy haircut. She’s tilting her head as though she’s listening. Who knows? Perhaps she is listening. Perhaps, said Grandfather, to the fire of the title, which is raging in the distance and is inexorably coming closer. Well, I won’t tell you what she was really listening to, because I know it would spoil the whole thing for you, in case you later decided to see the film yourself. I know you haven’t seen it, but I’m sure that you already wish you had. Anyway, we haven’t seen such beautiful photography here for a long time. If someone doesn’t know what art is and would like to know, he just has to come to the Apollo and study the shot with Asta Nielsen and the candles, then he’ll understand!
The young Gert spends much time with his Grandfather at the cinema, where Grandfather’s absorption into the film world is almost total: “deeply immersed, up to nose and ears, in the world of Orlac, or, shall we say Dr Caligari”. On days off the two visit cinemas in the surrounding region—none of which have their own film explainer—inspecting the premises, collecting programmes, testing the seats. Grandfather had inspected thirty-two cinemas, with eighteen still to be visited: “Then I will have seen what there is to see in this world, and can leave contentedly, no one can fit more into a human life.”
Grandfather’s long-suffering family puts up with his cinephilia with a mixture of frustration, admiration, and resignation. Gert’s single mother, who supports the household with sewing work, notes with a sigh that “Grandfather is an artist […] he just needs to discover in what field.” The narrative is peppered with sardonic asides from Gert’s Grandmother—“Grandfather, talking in the Apollo, rumpled his brow. ‘That’s where the thoughts are, in the wrinkles’ (Grandmother).”—although over the course of the book, she becomes increasingly exasperated with this spirited but maddening ne’er-do-well who brought her to drab Limbach so long ago, until eventually their relationship completely breaks down.
Finally, the sound film comes to Limbach. Herr Theilhaber, proprietor of the Apollo cinema, announces that he will begin showing sound films, against the vigorous protestations of Grandfather.
Herr Theilhaber shook his head. Film culture, he said, mopping his brow, is changing. Films are now going to be made in such a way that all this palaver about them will be superfluous. Including yours, Hofmann! There are certain truths that may have a bitter taste, but we have to look them in the eye. If I’ve gone on showing silent films, it was purely on your account. But you know that, don’t you?
Oh, Herr Theilhaber, he said, I’m not superfluous. An audience needs someone to explain a film to them, at least its finer points. They have no idea what is contained in a film if you look at it closely, in every single shot. No no, said Grandfather, that must be explained. Otherwise, it would be lost.
Nonetheless, Grandfather is reduced to film explaining only two nights a week, and eventually not at all. He struggles with his demotion, initially expressing his feeling of purposeless through anger: “But instead of saying: Goodbye, Herr Theilhaber! he said: Drop dead, you gravedigger of cinematographic art!”. Later, he becomes more pathetic and shambling with his lack of purpose: “Grandfather now had so much time that it was ‘dribbling out of his nose, his ears, his mouth’ (Grandmother).”
Taken objectively, Grandfather is a difficult and even unlikeable character, alternately ridiculous, pompous, and pathetic. Yet his energy is irresistible and he is never malicious; especially seen through the affection of young Gert’s eyes, the reader finds sympathy with him. The droll wit of Hofmann’s prose plays a huge role here: The Film Explainer has a relatively elliptical style, meandering rather than plot-driven and not always chronological, but Hofmann’s style is precise in its offbeat rhythm. It would be easy for such a tale to descend into grimness, but Hofmann keeps notes of humour throughout.
And being set in Germany in the 1930s, some of the book deals with nasty topics indeed. The dark undertones to this story emerge only gradually: the Jewish Herr Theilhaber leaves without warning; the Helenenstrasse is renamed A. Hitlerstrasse; sprinkled amid I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Marlene Dietrich’s Morocco is a mention of Hitlerjunge Quex. Gert has little context for these changes, and as the narrative voice never overreaches his child’s perspective, these developments are reported simply as part of the fabric of his small world. We watch as Grandfather falls in with two Nazis that have moved to Limbach, chiefly because he finds a receptive audience in them: a fulfilment of his need to belong in a world that has passed him by. It is to the reader to ask the hard questions about the complicity of everyday people in the Nazi routine—even if Grandfather’s ‘contribution’ to a National Socialist rally is derailed by a typically film-addled detour.
The original title of the book is Der Kinoerzähler. English-language film history usually calls this role the ‘film lecturer’, but ‘explainer’ is a good translation choice here, given the way Grandfather conceives of himself. On the bus or train home from their cinema inspection trips,
Grandfather would tell the film to me once, more, the way he had understood it. Often he had understood it quite differently than me. I thought: Why does everyone understand every film differently?
The Film Explainer presents a picture of film presentation different to that typically documented in history books. This is a fictionalized memoir of Gert Hofmann’s childhood, and we can assume that the timeframe of the book covers approximately the mid-30s until the mid-40s, as Gert was born in 1931, and his grandfather Karl died in 1944. The role of the ‘film explainer’ was real, but it is one that is much more associated with early cinema, that is, film before the rise of the feature film (the Japanese benshi being an outlier in this regard). It may be that film explaining persisted much longer in rural areas than urban, but it’s no wonder that the people in Limbach consider Grandfather a relic—as long as two decades after it was a common part of film-going, he has kept up the job of film explainer, seemingly solely through self-belief.
The book also implies a very long tail of silent film exhibition in Germany, which probably had the quickest takeup of sound film of any country other than the USA. But even allowing Hofmann some creative licence regarding dates, The Film Explainer demonstrates that it took quite some time for this change to filter right across the country, and it’s logical that the conversion to sound would not have come until very late in an impoverished and small place like Limbach. Still, it’s later than I would have assumed—and interesting that the film that introduced the sound-film in Limbach was none other than The Jazz Singer, which presumably would have been knocking on ten years old by then. As well, Grandfather routinely shows films that were by then ten or more years old—even twenty, in the case of Das Feuer (1914), which he had shown “last week” at one point in the book. For me, this raises all sorts of questions about silent film distribution in the early sound era in Germany, as I wouldn’t have assumed that many of the films Grandfather shows were accessible. I’ve seen an article or two about the circulation/continued exhibition of silent films in the sound era, but it’s not a common topic (or an easily google-able one).
But back to the main point: The Film Explainer is a true tragicomedy and a very impressive work. It’s one of my favourite fictional (well, semi-fictional) books dealing with cinema – highly recommended.
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Hofmann, Gert. The Film Explainer [Der Kinoerzähler]. 1990. Trans. Michael Hofmann. London: Secker & Warburg, 1995.
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And as a post-script: the films mentioned in The Film Explainer make a long list. To show the wide-ranging cinematic scope of the novel, here I present a graphic featuring (almost) all of the films mentioned in the course of the book. An impressive cinematic roster!
This post is my contribution to the CMBA blogathon Words! Words! Words! Read the other entries here.