Rudolf Arnheim

Mark Nornes amnornes at
Mon Jun 11 08:56:53 EDT 2007

Thank you for letting us now about this, Roland. Arnheim lived in  
town here, but I only managed to meet him once. He was a kindly old  
man (just shy of 100 at the time, but sharp as nails). For those of  
you unfamiliar with his work, Arnheim is notorious for taking the  
hardest of hard lines on the artlessness of the sound film. This was  
a commonly held view at the coming of sound, but it didn't take too  
many films to convince people that things were OK. Film art wasn't  
dead. But Arnheim wouldn't budge, preferring the glories of the late  
silent era to the clunky realism of the classical sound cinema. This  
is perplexing, but I have to admit it makes for great material for  
pedagogy. We teaching Arnheim every semester here, not simply for the  
canonical status of Film as Art—he challenges students to pay close  
attention to the riches of silent cinema, to recognize the pressures  
the given state of the art places on theoretical and critical  
discourses, and to puzzle through their own ideas on what constitutes  
artful cinema.

He basically claims that he stopped watching when he gave up on the  
form, started writing on other media, and settled into teaching here  
at University of Michigan. So when I met him, the pressing question  
was if he watched any films in the last half-century. The answer:  
"Oh, not so many." I pressed him. Surely he must have watched films.  
No way could he have made it through the 20th century, having started  
out as a critic and scholar of cinema, and simply stopped watching.

"Well, I did watch this one film. What was it? A musical, set in  

"Could it have been Sound of Music?" I suggested.

"Yes! Sound of Music. That was nice."

A formalist to the end!

As for the impact of his thought on Japan, this is a good question.  
You really don't see that much mention of him in the 1930s.  
Munsterberg and Balasz pop up quite a bit, along with the French  
(Epstein, Dulluc, etc.). But Arnheim didn't seem to take.

We might flip the question over: why didn't Arnheim capture the  
imagination? Some Japanese critics griped about the artlessness of  
the sound film.  And so many Japanese theorists, critics and  
filmmakers were entranced by Soviet montage theory, you'd think that  
they'd find Arnheim useful when the government started cracking down  
on the left; this was, after all, the same moment when Arnheim gets  


On Jun 11, 2007, at 3:43 AM, Roland Domenig wrote:

> German Papers reported today that the German-born author, art and  
> film theorist Rudolf Arnheim has died on Saturday at age 102 in Ann  
> Arbor.
> His preoccupation with film led in 1932 to the publication of his  
> first book, "Film als Kunst" (Film as Art), in which he examined  
> the various ways in which film images are different from literal  
> encounters with reality. A Japanese translation by Sasaki Norio was  
> published by Oraisha in early 1933, less than a year after its  
> publication in Germany. It was probably the first translation of  
> this influential book in any language. A second Japanese  
> translation by Shiga Nobuo from the English translation was  
> published in 1960. Other books by Arnheim such as "Art and Visual  
> Perception" or "Visual Thinking" have also been translated and are  
> to this day standard lecture for Japanese art students as well.
> Does anyone know about the Japanese reception of "Film as Art" in  
> the 1930s?
> Roland Domenig
> Institute of East Asian Studies
> Vienna University
> <winmail.dat>

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