Visible Evidence 2021

Filmic Civics: Revisiting Documentary’s Pedagogical Drive, 1924–1936

Vrääth Öhner
Marie-Noëlle Yazdanpanah
Joachim Schätz
Respondent: Kay Hoffmann
Thu, Dec 16
90 Min
Mousonturm (Rehearsal 1)
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Grierson’s documentary pedagogy

It is worth recalling that the British documentary group began not so much in affection for film per se as in affection for national education” (John Grierson, 1937). Nowhere does Grierson elaborate on this idea more precisely than in a lecture he gave at the 1936 Southport Conference of the National Union of Teachers on the subject of “Broadcasting and the Cinema as Instruments of Education”. While educational film, according to Grierson, plays only a supplementary role within the curriculum, documentary film responds to a fundamental crisis in the educational system that could easily develop into a fundamental crisis of liberal democracy.

The crisis is that formal education has lost touch with modern social life, that it continues to convey the old liberal, individualistic and rational theories that no longer do justice to the complexity and interconnectedness of the modern world. Documentary, however, is a response to this crisis in that it is able to really bring the outside world to life for the growing citizen.

Although Grierson repeats views that have already been extensively commented on, the modification he makes to the scheme of aesthetic education seems remarkable: The educational task of documentary consists less in mediating between sensuality and reason (as was envisaged by German cultural films, for example) than between particular private interests and scientific discourse. The scope and result of this modification will be the subject of my contribution, as well as the problems that documentary has to face as a consequence.

Vrääth Öhner

Vrääth Öhner, born in 1965, is a film and media scholar and works as a Researcher at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Digital History since 2018. 2019/20 he was a Visiting Professor at the University of Bremen. From 2011 to 2017 he was a University Assistant (PostDoc) at the Institute of Theater, Film and Media Studies at the University of Vienna. His research interests include the theory, aesthetics and history of (documentary) film and television as well as of media and popular culture.

"Life in a Burgenland Peasant Village" – Territorial Claims and Identity Formation in Educational Films

An “uplift of national sentiment” and the presentation of a new territory unknown to Austrians were the declared goals of the educational film Life in a Burgenland Peasant Village (1924/25). Its precise and observational images present a seemingly never-changing circle of life, into which modernity has found its way through machines, but not concerning communal life. The Hungarian Burgenland was granted to Austria after World War I as late as 1921 and the only significant territorial gain of the new state. Burgenland was a highly contested space in a country whose sovereignty was permanently questioned in the interwar period, and the site of embittered conflicts about Austria’s democratic constitution, escalating in the famous Schattendorf killings of 1927.

In contemporary discourses, Burgenland was often imagined as a “foreign”, backward “East”; at the same time, its “German” character was emphasized. The presentation examines how Life in a Burgenland Peasant Village can be located within these debates. How does it stage the “discovery” of the unknown and what ideas of national superiority guide its gaze? Produced on the initiative of teachers as a collaborative effort, this film is also a response to the lack of institutional support for educational film. How do the depiction of identity formation and confidence-building in an independent Austria differ in comparison with films commissioned by the state? And: What idea of civic education was conveyed cinematically, especially when another claim was to “plant respect for peasant labor into childrens’ hearts” through aesthetically impressive images?

Marie-Noëlle Yazdanpanah

Marie-Noëlle Yazdanpanah is a cultural historian and film educator. She works as a Researcher at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Digital History. Former projects linked academic research and education focusing on film and urban studies, where she also co-edited an issue of the journal “zeitgeschichte” on film education. Recently, she realized a short film on the history of living conditions of women in Vienna and was part of the curatorial team of the exhibition “Red Vienna, 1919-1934” (Wien Museum). She researches and has published on visual history and consumer culture with a focus on interwar Vienna and on the history of media education.

Handheld Promises. Small-Gauge Didactics of Political Crisis in Austria ca. 1930

The 1930 national election campaign found Austria’s Social Democratic party at a precarious zenith: While membership was at a new height and efforts such as the Viennese housing program bore impressive fruit, attempts at social and economic reform had been stalled and right-wing political violence proliferated. The party answered this situation with a full-on multimedia campaign which was boosted by investment in new technologies, especially small-gauge film. For the first time, film use in the campaign was centrally managed by the Central Office for Workers’ Education, which also had campaign films be produced in-house. These films, as well as the concepts for film use promoted in the Central Office publication Bildungsarbeit perform a left-turn from the party’s use of film. They ditch newsreel objectivism and advertising gloss for a rhetoric that blends the epistemic value of the “document” with a stress on film’s “educational” efficacy.

In my presentation I argue that rather than merely playing catch-up with the alliances of left-wing politics with modernist film culture that were well-established at that time in Germany or the Netherlands, Austria’s Social Democrats put their own localized spin on this precarious relationship: Fritz Zvacek’s campaign film Schach der Wohnungsnot! (1930), of which a print was recovered in 2020, builds formal correspondences between handheld camera movements and Vienna’s non-modern commitment to brickwork, while film educators like Johann Fuchs or Hans Riemer developed concepts of film presentation that aimed to make filmic “records” speak within established party event structures.

Joachim Schätz

Joachim Schätz, born 1984, works as a postdoctoral University Assistant at the Department of Theatre, Film and Media Studies at the University of Vienna. He leads the FWF-funded project “Educational film practice in Austria” (2019-2022), which is carried out in collaboration with the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Digital History. He has published a monograph on Austrian industrial and advertising film, co-published a book on recent American comedy, co-edited a volume on German filmmaker Werner Hochbaum and an edition of peer-reviewed journal “zeitgeschichte” on sponsored films, among other writings on useful cinema, documentary film, comedy, and theories of the detail.

Respondent: Kay Hoffmann

Dr. Kay Hoffmann is a film journalist and historian. Since 2007 head of research at the Documentary Film Center (Haus des Dokumentarfilms) in Stuttgart. 2018-2021 Offenburg University: Franco-German RhInedits project (Cinematheque Upper Rhine Valley). 1989 PhD degree in cultural studies University Marburg. Since 1995, numerous projects for the Documentary Film Center. Part of the research project on the history of nonfiction film in Germany before 1945, supported by the German Research Fund (DFG). Overall coordinator of the DFG-project on German nonfiction film 1945-2005, which will be online 2021. Organization of conferences and festivals (Berlinale, Input, NaturVision). Numerous publications.