Erotikon: The Haptic in the Film of the Czech Avant-Garde

Malynne Sternstein, University of Chicago

The somatic textuality of film—its extra-diegetic, even haptic or textural possibilities, its temporal and spatial nexes, its explosion of narrative linearity—made it a utopic medium for a Czech avant-garde obsessed with the plural dimensionality of art. From the movements of Devětsil and Poetism in the 1920s, through to Surrealism in the 30s, film was theorized by the likes of Karel Teige and Vítězslav Nezval as nothing short of salvational for art and life in modern crisis; Teige was wont to “translate” “picture poems” or collages into the “flashing image[s] of lyrical film” and he and Nezval collaborated with film-makers on several screenplays, dubbing the results “film-poems.”

If for the Czech radical and artistic left, film could be conceived of as the totalizing medium, the resolution to the age-old controversy between the plastic and the so-called dynamic or verbal arts, then what did the Czech vanguard see as the medium’s special essence? I would suggest in this presentation that the Czech avant-garde saw film’s unique capabilities in its abilities to figure the body. This somatic opportunity helps to explain the erotic spell cast on early Czech art films and also allows for a corresponding reading of the Czech avant-garde’s interest in the body as a signifier. The body in filmic space and time (or what Walter Benjamin has called “scene”) could be understood as an experiment in the realization of actual or felt “joy.” The fact that one can be aroused and stimulated by the work of art in a most actual way—through the body and of the body—was of great import to the Czech avant-garde, which identified itself as the propagator of ecstasy for the people. The body, then, in filmic actualization, was an important site for radical Czech film-makers to make good on their populist political intent and to expand the realm of art into the realm of life.

In order to query the theses proposed, the paper will test the success of the Czech avant-garde’s assumptions about film’s character and examine the potential of uncompromised embodiment in film through a close study of scenes in Gustav Machatý’s 1929 Erotikon (screenplay by Nezval) and his notorious Extase from four years later. Principal among the extracts to be shown and studied will be moments of erotic discourse, where, if my premises hold, the body is used as textual signifier and can be “read” or “parsed” as its own gestural dialogue. For example, Hedy Kiesler’s (later Lamarr) infamous bathing scene, accompanied as it is by a recursively complex voyeuristic element, can be read within the framework of conventional Freudian-Lacanian models but also through Walter Benjamin’s pioneering work on “body and image spaces,” theories he developed in his writings on Surrealism and correlated from his fragments on painting and film, to explain the body as signifier-in-itself. The paper will also touch on the complications to Czech avant-garde discourse on film’s capacity to embody; for instance, when the notion of film surface comes into question, certain disappointments, evident partially in Machatý’s later German studio films and in Exstase, accompany the depiction of the body. These disappointments, akin to the modern disappointment with language and its (in)capacity to embody, will also be explored to some extent in the analysis. Ultimately, it is hoped that a theory of film’s potential for somatic discourse will help to illuminate the use of the body in early Czech film.