October 10, 2023

Who Does the World Belong To? 
The place of a film*
by Bernard Eisenschitz

Here rests our
last hope for work:
Come back


The story of Kuhle Wampe derived from a short report Slatan Dudow read in the newspaper about an unemployed worker committing suicide. [1] Such news items were then as frequent as those that started Carl Mayer on The Last Laugh and Brecht on The Bread Shop (Der Brotladen, 1929). Thus it is significant that rather than choose a "rough piece of reality" as raw material, the authors opted for the media's account of that reality. On the other hand, once the contradictions contained in such material have been made clear, a fruitful and desirable part of the dramatic work is to divide each unit of the plot into sub-units, titles, and even newspaper articles (A Man's a Man).

In Kuhle Wampe, the role of the newspaper is confirmed by inscribing its social function in the fiction: its function of production (if looking for work becomes work, then the classified-ads paper, like the bicycle, becomes an instrument of work); of reproduction (of bourgeois ideology: the father reads out the story of the dancer Mata Hari while the mother is checking the accounts); or its revolutionary function (the militant sale of Communist papers at the Sports Festival).

The importance of this initial stimulus is far from negligible since it refers to the category of the "typical" as Walter Benjamin defined it in his article on Potemkin [1a], and as the censor understood it in his conversation with Brecht and Dudow (cf. A Small Contribution to the Theme of Realism). For instance, the statistics for January 1931 record the suicide of eight unemployed workers in a single day.[2] Thus one of Kuhle Wampe's most significant lessons is the relationship between the typical and the notions of Gestus and montage.


By 1930, industrial production had fallen by 40% since 1913, and, between 1929 and 1932, unemployment had risen from 13.2% of the working population to 43.8%. In January 1930, 80% of those unemployed were drawing unemployment benefits, whereas by December, the figure had fallen to 57%.

"By January 1931, 700,000 unemployed workers had to resort to help from welfare departments while 650,000 others were no longer  receiving anything. The decree of December 1930 and the budget projected for 1931 provided for a considerable reduction of the relief funds destined for the unemployed. . ."

Since July 1930, the Reichstag's role had been almost nil. The Brüning government was in fact operating through emergency decrees under Article 48 of the Constitution, that allowed for the suspension of fundamental rights.

Faced with this situation, which favored the success of Nazi propaganda among the middle classes and the peasantry, the Social Democrats abdicated any political initiative, following instead the line of the "lesser evil" and refusing in principle the "two terrors": the white and the red. And its mass organizations remained idle, while as early as summer 1930 the Nazis committed a series of assassinations. In March 1932, Carl von Ossietsky wrote that "The shocking fact in the present situation is not that fascism is on the increase, but that the others are adapting themselves to it." In contrast to the Social Democrats' lack of perspectives, the masses had been radicalized and the working classes had grown more pugnacious in the face of police repression (between March 1931 and March 1932, 677 Communist workers were arrested, 54 others killed, while more than 4,000 Communist meetings were banned and 700 others broken up). Thus organized activities could be found both in the KPD itself and in the mass organizations whose aim was not directly political but rather that of politicization, through the elaboration of Marxist practices vis-à-vis culture, sport and the relationship between leisure and work; for instance, the sports federation Kampfgemeinschaft fur rote Sportein-heit, under Communist leadership and comprising 110,000 members.

However, the programme presented by the KPD in August 1930 did contain some serious errors. Wilhelm Pieck has pointed out that ". . . it did not sufficiently insist on the struggle for the defense of democracy and of the political rights of the mass of the people. . . . The attack was directed against the Nazis and the Social Democrats alike, . . . the acuteness of the fascist peril was not yet understood. The Party should have made every effort to form a united front of the Communists and the Social Demo-crats . . . without being deterred by the distinctly reactionary policies of the Social-Democrat leaders and their rejection of unity of action." And in an analysis of Kuhle Wampe the belated correction of these errors must, to some extent, be taken into consideration.


The unemployed worker's suicide and the other situations forming the fictional plot of Kuhle Wampe were not fresh material. They can be found in the theatre, both in the naturalistic theatre of ideas, then undergoing a revival, and in agit-prop, i.e., the amateur theatrical companies grouped in the League of the Theatre Workers of Germany. Recent re-edition of the texts [3] has revealed what seems to have been most often schematic dramatic writing; on the other hand, the mise-en-scene marked a decisive departure from the naturalism of the professional bourgeois theatre.

Finally, they could be found in the cinema, in a populist current (with its side-lights and epigones, a slight influence on large-scale production) corresponding qua production to the agit-prop. Indeed, the company fostering most of these attempts, Prometheus, was the German branch of a Soviet firm emanating from an international mass organization, the MEZHRABPOM (the Russian acronym for International Workers' Aid). But a production-distribution system creating its own "apparatus", as in the theatre, was still a technical impossibility. [4] Militant films distributed by revolutionary organizations were therefore distinctly separate from the fiction films Prometheus also produced: these ranged from exposing exploitation and misery (Hunger in Waldenburg) to social melodrama (Jenseits der Strasse). Very superior to the bulk of contemporary German production, these films indicated various attempts to depart from naturalism, in order to found a new cinema along the lines of the Soviet films distributed by Prometheus. But even in the best work, that of Piel Jutzi (Hunger in Waldenburg, Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Gluck), passive reproduction of a reality supposedly containing self-revelation blocked such attempts at the stage of active pessimism. [5]


Brecht's "lax" views regarding intellectual property are well known. To quote Bernhard Reich's description of how Brecht worked:

"Were a visitor to arrive Brecht would see this as a positive asset to his work; he would read out a particularly difficult passage, thereby either testing the quality of the work on his visitor, or checking it with him. He would then immediately sit down at the typewriter and type out the new version. Brecht knew that participation by a number of people was fruitful to the work and he would gather around him young people, collaborators. They would assemble material, discuss his plans with him, offer suggestions, alterations, improvements; and they are featured as collaborators in his publications." [6]

Brecht did not use his capacity for appropriating and assimilating the knowledge of others to claim it as his own knowledge, but with a generative purpose, in order to make it function. For the artist of the modern age, examples and models of art change according to its function; they must be sought for in science as much as in critical or positively sarcastic re-reading of the classics. Brecht named as his "best books of 1926" a series of scientific and documentary works, and even only the illustrations of one of these volumes. "From the reviews, I gather that books are not usually judged by their value as raw material, but that is how I judge them." [7]

This accounts for Brecht's disappointment when experts were unable to explain to him the hidden mechanisms of the stock exchange.

"I had the feeling these processes could quite simply not be explained, that is, they defeated reason, which in turn means they were irrational, that is all. The way the world's grain was distributed could simply not be grasped. From every point of view, except that of a handful of speculators, this grain market was but a huge swamp. The drama I had envisaged I did not write; instead I began reading Marx, and then — only then — did I read Marx. Now my own scattered practical experiences and impressions really did begin to come alive." [8]

Initiated by this creative block during the Weimar Republic's period of relative stability, Brecht's discovery of Marxism, a theoretical discovery, was soon to be concretely anchored in the development of class struggles in Germany. In the eyes of German intellectuals (for some only after their exile), these struggles finally destroyed the classical image of the author. If Brecht was trying to create the theatre of the scientific age, then the didactic play was the theatre of this age at a given stage in its development. The analysis of the proletarian organizations then led them to take into account some conclusions reached by the avant-garde theatre, notably that the artistic producer (i.e., the agit-prop troupes) inscribes the conditions of his production within the aesthetic process.

"When they (the workers) themselves wrote and produced for the stage they were wonderfully original. The so-called agit-prop art, at which people, not always the best people, turned up their noses, was a mine of new artistic material and modes of expression. From it there emerged long-forgotten, magnificent elements from genuine epochs of popular art, boldly modified for new social aims: breathtaking short-cuts and compressions, beautiful simplifications, in which there was often an astonishing elegance and pregnancy and an unwavering eye for the complex.'' [9]


This Dudow also learnt from an extremely rich apprenticeship: from a traineeship on the shooting-set of Metropolis via study of theatrical science with Max Hermann, work with an agit-prop company, study in Moscow of the work of Meyerhold and Eisenstein (at the height of the polemic about the "living man" and intellectual cinema) to, finally, in September 1929, an assistantship in Brecht's theatre on the Schillbauerdamm.

For Dudow, to build a new theatre and destroy naturalism required using and integrating knowledge from outside the theatre as it was then conceived. His first premises for an aesthetic theory related to his political commitment were reached through scientific theories: Max Planck and his critique of positivism, Einstein and also Freud and Pavlov. [10]

Kuhle Wampe took position on a number of polemical matters: intellectual cinema, kino-eye, agit-prop. "Here before our eyes are impulses towards a progressive cinema," wrote Werner Hecht and Wolfgang Gersch [11] quite correctly, referring to the contemporary character of the film. The sentence could be re-written as follows so as to give some idea of the effort of assimilation and reflection it implies: on the function of the cinema as much as on existing aesthetic trends.

Here, as in Brecht's theatrical work, the notion of "collaboration" is totally meaningful. A working collective where "discussion rather than authority was the determining factor" (Dudow). Thus it was a blatant rebuttal of the crude contemporary notions of the cinema, be it that film can never rank as an art since by nature it is a collaborative procedure, or even that film is the only intrinsically, naturally collaborative art (Kracauer).

Indeed, such a working collective could only arise in a production structure which did not challenge the existing one––an absurd utopia, the experiment of Kuhle Wampe was very much conceived as unique––but rather the very function of film:

"Naturally, the organization of the work was a much greater effort for us than the (artistic) work itself, i.e., we came more and more to treat organization as an essential component of artistic labor. This was only possible because the work as a whole was political work" (Collective presentation of the film).


In the spring of 1931, Dudow submitted the first draft of a script to Brecht. He had already collaborated with him on the Baden-Baden Didactic Play, the script The Welt, which was rejected by the producers of the Threepenny Opera film, and Die Massnahme, put on in December 1930. The script tells of an unemployed worker's suicide and of his family's subsequent attempts to avoid despair.

1930 was the year of the lawsuit against the producers of the Threepenny Opera film and of a number of didactic plays. In 1931 the activities of the group gathered around Brecht moved towards expanding and developing the notion of the didactic play. This was later superseded by the elaboration of the epic form.

The initial communal work on the script followed soon after Brecht and Dudow had produced a revival of A Man's a Man in Berlin. Likewise, the shooting was to be contemporary with the collective writing of The Mother. This first version of the script has been preserved. [12] It includes two of the three major parts of the finished film:

"one less unemployed" — an unemployed worker's quarrel with his father, who is also out of work, and his suicide. "The young man in question, before he threw himself from the window, took off his watch so as not to destroy it" (ibid);

"the ideal life for a young person" — on eviction, the family takes refuge in a camp site on the outskirts of Berlin, Kuhle Wampe. "There the girl gets pregnant and under pressure from the lumpen-petit bourgeois relations dominant in the site (a kind of " possession " of the land and the payment of a small pension create characteristic social forms), the young couple become engaged" (ibid).


As with several of Brecht's scripts, collected in the volumes of his Texte fur Filme, [13] this particular version can be seen to function as a figured bass. The tale is there (and so is most of the dialogue of the first part), but in the form of a continuous dramatic narrative. There are no ellipses, no external elements: the montage, the insertion of documents are virtually absent. There is but one indication of (traditional) montage during the removal to Kuhle Wampe (in the film another solution was in fact adopted), and a few "inserts" of external material: an advertising billboard for "Fromm's Act", which was shot and then cut by the censors who considered it to "indicate all too clearly what the young couple might have done to avoid the problems their liaison had given rise to"; [14] the reading in a "dry tone" of paragraph 218, the legislation against abortion, which was also cut by the censors; and the story of the spy Mata Hari.

The lacunae in this first script give some idea of the type of intervention Brecht and his co-operative made upon the story. "Foreign elements" were to abound: informative and ideological inserts, which are simultaneously indications, allusions and rhythmic pauses. Benjamin's definition (The Author as Producer) requires complementation:

"This uncovering of the conditions is effected by interrupting the dramatic processes; but such interruption does not act as a stimulant; it has an organizing function. It brings the action to a standstill in mid-course and thereby compels the spectator to take up a position towards the action. . . . Let me give an example to show how Brecht, in his selection and treatment of the Gestisch, simply uses the method of montage — which is so essential to radio and film." [15]

Montage here means the very process by which a new dramatic art relocates actors and story within a chain of causality, and the spectator's interest is no longer aroused by harmonizing with his emotions, but through recognition — of reality — and of what is at stake in that reality. The cinematic process itself is but one of the modalities of that construction principle, its most frequent application being the inclusion of material that resists the fiction: legal paragraphs, news items, an agit-prop scene miming the family being evicted, and also the sequences of "intellectual montage" that were to develop in the film and determine its new economy: "self-contained pieces of music accompanied by images of apartment blocks, factories and landscapes" (Collective presentation). The autonomy of the various elements creates their global meaning: that of the montage sequences on the same basis as that of the three ballads that punctuate the film.

Music with words ("music without words," says Eisler, acquired its great importance and its full development only under capitalism") –– songs and ballads –– also represents a unit which is in contradiction with the other units in the film, an active function more significant than the words themselves: "We intervened in everyday life; were something new to happen, Brecht would be the first to call me: 'We ought to do something' . . ." (Eisler).

The composer's contribution to the shaping of the shooting-script seems to have been of paramount importance, and is confirmed in an article in Film Kurier devoted to this now lost script. [17]


For the first time since Drums in the Night, one of Brecht's dramatic works was set in contemporary Germany. The previous attempt, The Bread Shop, had remained a fragment. The songs in Kuhle Wampe form a significant part of the production. Some (e.g. 'The Solidarity Song') were popular before the film's release; others, which were not used, remain only as poems. Like an incomplete play, a poem may be a fragment; a fragment may have power in itself. The epic form is founded on this unit: a scene becomes a fragment. The key situation in Kuhle Wampe (the eviction), described in the agit-prop piece performed by the Rote Sprachrohr, is "a state of fact" (note, moreover, that this actual moment was not in the first script); the juxtaposition of such "states of fact" (or Gestus, or elements of montage as Benjamin calls them) allowed Dudow-Brecht-Ottwald-Eisler to represent reality taking shape, in other words as malleable. Thus the project took on totalizing proportions: a dialectic of the revolution, not in the historical idiom (The Mother) but in the modern idiom.


At a moment when access to the apparatus (professional theatres, radio, cinema) was more and more definitely barred to those works that represented the viewpoint of the proletariat and its allies, the political task was no longer the one the didactic plays had set themselves: "These productions were put on less for the spectators than for the participants; it was less an art for consumers than one for producers." [18] The epic form of The Mother and Kuhle Wampe was no longer directed solely at sympathizers, a subjective criterion, but — and this is an objective criterion — to those who are not exploiters ("even if the entire world does not feel concerned by Communism, Communism nevertheless is concerned with the whole world"). [19]

It is therefore significant that when Kuhle Wampe was screened in cinemas in Berlin and its suburbs in June 1932, it was the last public showing of one of Brecht's works in pre-fascist Germany. The stake of this new sociological experiment "did not allow for the irony of the "Threepenny Lawsuit"; any lesson could only be drawn from the film insofar as it was actually distributed. The question to answer, though, concerned the use of the cinema in a political struggle and the comparative impact of the theatre and the cinema; moreover, in theoretical terms, the film being held up by the censors represented an absolute loss.

Two final remarks: 

— the place Brecht assigned the cinema. The production of Kuhle Wampe contradicts the accepted view that Brecht's interventions in that field were only occasional and/or disastrous (a man of words, he is supposed not to have understood this art of the image . . . ). Yet precisely in an occasional work, Brecht would act as a function of the occasion, as he always did; his dramatic work as a screen writer also fulfilled above all a strategic function. Note here two passages from his Arbeitsjournal (Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt 1973): the precise account of his efforts in Hollywood, of his relations with Fritz Lang, testify to an exemplary attempt to use capitalist apparatus for progressive ends (and not just to earn a living alongside the merchants of lies). And in the DDR, his positive critical "attitude toward the new-born DEFA (national film industry), showing no indulgence and forever offering suggestions. 

— the need for a new criticism to deal with the new dramatic art was even more blatant in the cinema than in the theatre –– "where the policeman had become the critic most interested" in revolutionary drama. This was Brecht's intention in A Small Contribution to the Theme of Realism which, although it ought to be quoted in full [20], "deals with the censor's special interest in the significance of Kuhle Wampe vis-a-vis the public and in the political effectiveness of its montage, noting in particular that the film induced a critical attitude. Indeed, the cuts affected precisely the montage elements, not the action; and the censor's reproaches on aesthetic grounds." (Brecht's account is not in the least idealized — see the protocols of the censorship, which are a good example of scientific criticism) [21] were the ones that involved the causal relations the film unmasked, i.e., the significance of an aesthetic within a given societyWhat was under discussion then, too, was decided by a mass action, was (still is: Jean-Marie Straub's History Lessons, taken from The Affairs of Mr Julius Caesar) "becoming-popular" as much as "being-popular".

* First published as
"A qui appartient le monde? Place d'un film"
L'Arc no. 55 (1973), Aix-en-Provence. 
Issue: Après Brecht, 1973

Translation: Kari Hanet
Screen, Summer 1974
vol. 15, no. 2


1. I shall refer to Werner Hecht and Wolfgang Gersch, eds, Kuhle Wampe, Protokoll des Films und Materlalen, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt 1969. The edition which appeared in the DDR in 1971 (Reclam, Leipzig) is considerably more complete. 
1a. 'Answer to Schmitz' Literarische Welt, no. 10, March 11, 1927, pp 7-8. 
2. Gilbert Badia : La Fin de la Republique allemande, Editions Sociales, Paris 1958. 
3. See Ludwig Hoffmann and Daniel Hoffmann-Ostwald: Deutsches Arheitertheater 1918-1933, eine Dokumentation, Berlin 1961 –Editor's note. 
4. On this point Willi Münzenberg's little book Erobert den Film! (1925) should be analyzed, and also the Japanese experience of Pro-Kino, which, according to Sadoul, worked in 16mm film at the end of the 1920's. [Münzenberg's book has been reprinted in Materialistische Wissenschaft no. 7, Berlin 1973, pp 75-105  – Editor's note.] 
5. Hunger in Waldenburg, dir Piel Jutzi, 1924, Jenseits der Strasse, dir Leo Mittler, 1929, Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Gluck, dir Piel Jutzi, 1929 – Editor's note. 
6. Bernard Reich: 'Erinnerungen an den jungen Brecht', Sinn und Form, Heft 1, 2, 3, 1957, Zweites Sonderheft Bertolt Brecht, pp 434-5. 
7. XVIII, 51. 
8. XX. 46. 
9. Bertolt Brecht: ' Popularity and Realism,' New Left Review no. 84, March-April 1974, p 52. 
10. Information drawn from Hermann Herlinghaus: Slatan Dudow - sein Frilhwerk,' Filmwissenschaftliche Mitteilungen, Berlin, 1962 no 4. The same number contains the censorship protocols about Kuhle Wampe
11. Kuhle Wampe Protokoll, op cit, p 179. 
12. Cf. ibid, pp 83-8. 
13. Ed. Wolfgang Gersch and Werner Hecht, Berlin-Weimar 1971, two volumes. 
14. Kuhle Wampe Protokoll, op cit, p 139. 
15. Walter Benjamin: Understanding Brecht, NLB, London 1973, p 100. 
16. Cit. Walter Benjamin, ibid, p 96. 
17. Film Kurier, Berlin, August 13, 1931. 
18. 'Bertolt Brecht : Das Deutsche Theater der zwanziger Jahre,' XV, 239. Cf 'The German Drama : Pre-Hitler,' Left Review, Vol II, July 1936, pp 504-8 - Editor's note. 
19. ' Anmerkungen zur Mutter,' XVII, 1064-5. 
20. Originally cited in full in the same issue of Screen, Summer 1974, vol. 15, no. 2  –Slang note.
21. Kuhle Wampe Protokoll, op cit, pp 103-39. translated by Kari Hanet.

––with thanks to B.E. for his permission to republish this essay

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