Visualizing Pure Language: Silent Film Theory, The Dybbuk and The Decalogue: One

Sheila Skaff, University of Michigan

The longing for a pure or universal language arises in times of optimism and in times of dread, in flashes of uncertainty about the stamina of a national language. Political factors contributing to the decline of national languages (exile, the imposition of a colonizing language, oppression of a national minority) and technological developments encouraging international communication (the printing press, photography, film, the internet) can bring this desire to the surface. In this talk I examine the desire to discover a means of communication that would reach beyond the limitations imposed by standard language systems. I trace the history of the idea of pure and universal language in the literary traditions of Polish and Yiddish and as it flourished throughout Central Europe in the silent film era. I examine this trend as it emerged in the 1920s, on the eve of the widespread addition of sound to motion pictures, when several film theorists including Karol Irzykowski and Bela Balazs elaborated mystical theories about pure language. Its role in cinema continues in Poland throughout the twentieth century, as filmmakers explore spiritual questions about the possibility and consequences of controlling fate by attempting to gain access to a pure language. In Krzysztof Kieslowski's 1988 film made for Polish television, The Decalogue: One, a father's attempt to understand hidden meaning through calculations on a computer provokes questions about the possible consequences of the search for universal language. Created on the eve of drastic political change, this film represents a continuation of the tradition of the search for pure language and the remarkable way in which film has accompanied Central European artists in this search.