Thomas Mann on film: Text from “The Magic Mountain”

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REMARKS by Anthony Birch, Ph.D.
The passage reproduced below, from The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, is famous in film studies and rightfully so; it is among the finest ever written about the state of the human mind during the viewing experience. The Magic Mountain is the story of Hans Castorp, who goes to a mountain sanatorium with the intention of staying a few days, but finds himself compelled to stay longer — until seven years have passed. In this passage, Hans Castorp, his cousin, and friends from the sanatorium go to the movies. Through the voice of Hans, Mann marvels at the fact that although cinema is nothing like reality, it has the impact of reality — at least for some. Reality is the continuous present. Cinema consists of chopped up, momentary suggestions of events removed in space and time. In cinema, space is “annihilated.” Viewers are instantly transported to any part of the world. Cinema serves the most base instincts of the common man in its narratives — yet it has a kind of magical power to enthrall from which there is no escape. One longs to return to the darkness of the theater after the light of the world returns to destroy the illusion. Mann seems to be suggesting in this passage that the human psyche is as much moved and satisfied by illusion as reality. Strangest of all, Mann indicates, is the illusion of intimacy created by cinema. People “full of animal life” can appear to us in film with the direct, stark impact of a close face-to-face encounter. Yet this intimacy is one-way. The intimate look on the screen cannot be reciprocated by the viewer. The phantoms of cinema only seem to see us and they can not respond to us. This, I take it, Mann understands as a metaphor for the predicament of existence itself, in which human lives appear and disappear with all the senseless rapidity of cinema, and the call for intimate connections is flouted by the averted gaze of the other.

If you quote any of my remarks above, be sure to give proper credit. If you quote from Mann’s text below, it is preferred that you find the exact page number in Mann’s text, but in some cases (e.g., high school papers) it should be permissible to cite this page.

They even took Karen, one afternoon, to the Bioscope Theatre in the Platz — she loved it all so very much. The bad air they sat in was offensive to the three, used as they were to breathing the purest; it oppressed their breathing and made their heads feel heavy and dull. Life flitted across the screen before their smarting eyes: life chopped into small sections, fleeting, accelerated; a restless, jerky fluctuation of appearing and disappearing, performed to a thin accompaniment of music, which set its tempo to the phantasmagoria of the past, and with the narrowest of means at its command, yet managed to evoke a whole gamut of pomp and solemnity, passion, abandon, and gurgling sensuality. It was a thrilling drama of love and death they saw silently reeled off; the scenes, laid at the court of an oriental despot, galloped past, full of gorgeousness and naked bodies, thirst of power and raving religious self-abnegation; full of cruelty, appetite, and deathly lust, and slowing down to give a full view of the muscular development of the executioner’s arms. Constructed, in short, to cater to the innermost desires of an onlooking international civilization.

Settembrini, as critic, Hans Castorp thought, and whispered as much to his cousin, would doubtless have sharply characterized what they saw as repugnant to a humanistic sense, and have scarified with direct and classic irony the prostitution of technical skill to such a humanly contemptible performance. On the other hand, Frau Stuhr, who was sitting not far from our three friends, seemed utterly absorbed; her ignorant red face was twisted into an expression of the hugest enjoyment. And so were the other faces about them. But when the last flicker of the last picture in a reel had faded away, when the lights in the auditorium went up, and the field of vision stood revealed as an empty sheet of canvas, there was not even applause. Nobody was there to be applauded, to be called before the curtain and thanked for the rendition. The actors who had assembled to present the scenes they had just enjoyed were scattered to the winds; only their shadows had been here, their activity had been split up into millions of pictures, each with the shortest possible period of focus, in order to give it back to the present and reel it off again at will. The silence of the crowd, as the illusion passed, had about it something nerveless and repellent. Their hands lay powerless in face of the nothing that confronted them. They rubbed their eyes, stared vacantly before then, blinking in the brilliant light and wishing themselves back in the darkness, looking at sights which had had their day and then, as it were, had been transplanted into fresh time, and bedizened up with music.

The despot died beneath the knife, with a soundless shriek. Then came scenes from all parts of the world: the President of the French Republic, in top-hat and cordon, sitting in a landau and replying to a speech of welcome; the Viceroy of India, at the wedding of a rajah; the German Crown Prince in the courtyard of a Potsdam garrison. There was a picture of life in a New Mecklenburg village; a cock-fight in Borneo, naked savages blowing on nose-horns, a wild elephant hunt, a ceremony at the court of the King of Slam, a courtesans’ street in Japan, with geishas sitting behind wooden lattices; Samoyeds bundled in furs, driving sledges drawn by reindeer through the snowy wastes of Siberia; Russian pilgrims praying at Hebron; a Persian criminal under the knout. They were present at all these scenes; space was annihilated, the clock put back, the then and there played on by music and transformed into a juggling, scurrying now and here. A young Moroccan woman, in a costume of striped silk, with trappings in the shape of chains, bracelets, and rings, her swelling breasts half bared, was suddenly brought so close to the camera as to be life-sized; one could see the dilated nostrils, the eyes full of animal life, the features in play as she showed her white teeth in a laugh, and held one of her hands, with its blanched nails, for a shade to her eyes, while with the other she waved to the audience, who stared, taken aback, into the face of the charming apparition. It seemed to see and saw not, it was not moved by the glances bent upon it, its smile and nod were not of the present but of the past, so that the impulse to respond was baffled, and lost in a feeling of impotence. Then the phantom vanished. The screen glared white and empty, with the one word Finis written across it. The entertainment was over, in silence the theatre was emptied, a new audience took the place of that going out, and before their eager eyes the cycle would presently unroll itself again.

— from The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1958, pp. 316-318. Translation by H.T. Lowe-Porter.

By Anthony Birch

Anthony Birch, Ph.D. has taught Business Ethics, Introduction to Ethics, Contemporary Ethics, and Introduction to Philosophy at a number of colleges and universities. He is the co-author of How to Ace Your Online Course, available at Amazon.

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