Walter Benjamin, the famed literary and cultural critic, once called “The Arcades Project” — his seminal, fragmentary study of 19th-century Paris — “the theatre of all my struggles and all my ideas.” So it is fitting, given the metaphor, that last Thursday, a throng of people filed into Durham’s Full Frame Theater to watch filmmaker and art historian Judith Wechsler’s “The Passages of Walter Benjamin,” which documents the critic’s life and, of course, his most famous work, “The Arcades Project.”
Between 1927 and 1940, Benjamin carefully gathered a collection of personal perceptions and quotations in what would eventually become “The Arcades Project,” assembled after his death. Through a literary montage of fragments from 19th-century Paris, Benjamin explored modernity and latent history, producing an extensive critique of 1930s fascism. After fleeing Berlin to escape the Nazis, Benjamin arrived in Paris and worked continuously on the project, spending much of his time in the Bibliothèque Nationale, or the National Library of France. In 1940, Benjamin finally fled from Paris, hoping to make his way to the U.S. through Portugal, though he was detained at the Spanish border, and, rather than be turned over to the Nazis, took his own life.
Of course, the description and the biography are wildly reductive, as any two-sentence summary of a 1,000-page volume — or a life, for that matter — is bound to be. This is also the challenge faced by Wechsler, who was in attendance at the screening. After all, how does one condense a truly incredible life and a truly incredible masterwork into the confines of an hour-long film?
Wechsler’s answer is to embrace the fragmentary spirit of Benjamin’s work, weaving together pieces of the famed critic’s life — his friendships, his romances — with excerpts from “The Arcades Project” and from Benjamin’s letters, scrawled in cramped, tiny handwriting.
“I don’t mean this to sound pretentious, but in all the films I make, and in most of the films on artists, I try to somehow reflect my understanding of the artist’s work or the writer’s work in the style of the film,” Wechsler said in a Q&A after the screening.
In “The Passages of Walter Benjamin,” conveying that understanding necessitates montage of every sort. Strands of biography, literary excerpts and, perhaps most strikingly, images, many of them photographs taken by Wechsler, seem to produce meaning and resonance through their contrast.
“[Benjamin] liked fragments,” said Eric Downing, professor of English and comparative literature at UNC-Chapel Hill. “He didn’t like the idea of systematic totalities and you can understand why if you look at the politics of the day. So he was much more interested in the way that you could take disparate, apparently heterogeneous materials and through principles of juxtaposition, create montages, just putting things next to each other that didn’t seem to be related, that they would reveal connections and relations that were surprising and almost always unintended.”
Wechsler is more than up to the challenge, as one might expect from someone with more than 30 years’ worth of experience making films about art.
During the Q&A, Wechsler explained that her filmmaking career began in the 1970s through a partnership with Charles Eames, the designer and filmmaker. Eames invited Wechsler to co-direct two films with him on the work of Daumier and Cézanne, and she fell in love with the medium.
To the average Duke student, “The Passages of Water Benjamin” — or, rather, its subject matter — may seem obscure. But the story of how the film came to Full Frame is intertwined with a common sight from the average Duke student’s daily routine: the exhibit, “Humans of Paris: Picturing Social Life in the Nineteenth Century,” at the entrance of Perkins.
The exhibit curator Kathryn Desplanque, Carolina Postdoctoral Fellow for Faculty Diversity in the Art department at UNC-Chapel Hill, first became aware of “The Passages of Walter Benjamin” during a research trip to the French National Library several years ago. The film had screened only days before for an audience of librarians, curators and those who had contributed to the film. During the course of her research, a curator at the library recommended she take a look at the movie.
“It occurred to me while I was curating the exhibit that there were some thematic overlaps from the questions my exhibit addressed and some of the questions that Judith’s film explored, and I realized this is finally my chance to bring the film to Duke, to bring Judith Wechsler to Duke and to share the film with a larger audience,” Desplanque said.
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During his life, Benjamin worked in relative obscurity, which makes it all the more remarkable that his critical legacy remains relevant and central to contemporary works of criticism and scholarship — whether they come in the form of a documentary or an exhibit.