Celluloid Time Machine

Fidel Intriago reports from the first lecture of the 2012 Buenos Aires Talent Campus: Beatriz Sarlo’s take on History and Film.

Beatriz Sarlo at her lecture.

"I’m not a specialist on film, I’m just a member of the audience and I aspire to be just a member of the audience”. These were Beatriz Sarlo’s introductory words in Universidad del Cine’s auditorium in what was the Talent Campus’ first lecture. Film and History was the topic she presented for the young talents.


  1. There is this side of film as a source for historians, which was not very strong until recently, being it is only one century old. Historians have in documentary film, as well as in fiction, a source for future history: the way people dressed, what they ate, with how much enthusiasm they talked about a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder (in some Tarantino film, for example). When historians take that from film they create this small history that is neither found in newspapers nor in public documents, yet it is the center of social history. Most films (not those avant garde or experimental ones) condemn their representative role. Photography has an analogic force, a force so powerful that it is impossible for historians not to consider it when thinking about the past. That does not mean that cinema will tell all the truths about the past. I don’t know if PIZZA, BIRRA Y FASO will show the truth about what life was like in the 90s for young people in Buenos Aires, but it is an unavoidable source that shows the social pattern at the time. The aesthetic quality of that film does not matter as much as its documentary quality. And I’m not discussing whether it is a non-fiction film or not. I am talking about its documentary quality as it was shot in the streets of Buenos Aires. We see the people of Buenos Aires on their way out of the city’s nightclubs, and how they fight as they leave the nightclubs, etc. Literature has always had the power of arousing ideas and sources for historians. It is very difficult to study Argentina in the 20th century without reading Roberto Arlt or even Borges. But film carries an obvious documentary weight. No matter how much technically manipulated, the representative weight is much more evident. So much that I once knew a person who did not know Paris but had seen Godard’s work, and upon stepping into the French capital for the first time was able to recognize several street corners.

  2. With miraculous virtuosity, film educated its audience in an almost instant manner. Despite the stories of people running off scared when watching the railway engine and the crowd leaving the factory (Lumière), these stories are one-second long in the history of the 20th century. It is due to a characteristic similarly found in television (I’m sorry to have to say it like this): one just has to watch films in order to become an audience of them. Though to be part of the audience for Straub films it is necessary to know certain things. Same thing happens in the case of UN CHIEN ANDALOU. But in order to become part of the audience of mainstream cinema it is only necessary to watch films. The skills needed to become part of that audience are granted at the very act of sitting in front of a screen. This blessing is not found in the other arts. First, because one must know how to read; that’s the first level. Then, on a second level, or even on a third, greater level, one has to learn, study. Yet one is able to learn about cinema without any formal education. This is neither a good nor a bad characteristic, it only marks a difference in the discourses, in the tools used to make that discourse work.


  1. North-American cinema is the father and mother of it all, of all the horrors and all the excellences. In 1915, Griffith shot THE BIRTH OF A NATION, which is, as its title indicates, the first interpretation of how the United States were born. The film is intended for the masses, not for the gentlemen of New England or the founders of the nation. The other film is INTOLERANCE; both works are exceptional as two grandiloquent projects dealing with history. Film then becomes user and client of history, adding its realistic likeliness. From its beginnings, film has appeared as the very same life, progressing each year to a higher scale. Though I would say that in the last 20 years this has not been the case. If we measured it with the “realisticometer” of the 70s, cinema is not absolutely realistic. Yet if we see a 1915s film, it fulfills its realistic duty, it is filled with realistic molecules. In 1928, Dreyer shot what I like to call the first historic art film. The asthetic approach is at its highest level. Dreyer takes one of the most important events in the history of France, the French Revolution. What is exceptionally interesting in Dreyer’s films is that the elements of the avant-garde devour the historical elements creating a conflict between the story and the aesthetic dimension. This results in a contradiction between film and history.


Adorno writes the famous phrase about poetry after the Houlocaust being impossible. When mentioning poetry he is referring to any act of creation. It does not mean one cannot write about the Holocaust, it means that it is something impossible to show. If Adorno came back to life and watched SCHINDLER’S LIST he would die that very same moment. He wouldn’t think about the film as good or bad. He couldn’t conceive the idea of someone showing Jewish people about to die, naked and running around a concentration camp. And of someone shooting a scene with camera movement and a crane. From SCHINDLER’S LIST to the early (very close to the end of the war) and severe NUIT ET BROUILLARD, the discussion had already begun. Whether the images needed to be shown for that to be known or the other way round, for that to be known images where not necessary, except maybe on the press. That is, should the representative arts show those images. These discussions went through different phases. First in the post-war period, then in the 70s, where a group of German historians tried to explain –without justifying – the Holocaust. Meanwhile, Claude Lanzmann was preparing SHOA (9-hour long film about the Holocaust), and shot it while participating of this debate. He suscribed to what Adorno had said, and in his film there are no images of concentration camps.

(translated by Clara Picasso)