When I was a member of the College of Teachers at a Steiner school a few years ago, we would occasionally be approached by a parent or group of parents who, fired up with goodwill and enthusiasm for the school, wanted to suggest a new development that they thought would benefit the pupils and the wider school community.
Most of the time these proposals would be welcomed; but in a few unfortunate cases it might happen that these parents, without knowing what was wrong, would find that their proposal had bumped up against a kind of invisible glass ceiling and no further progress could be made.
What had gone wrong in these cases? Those who know Steiner schools will realise that these parents had unwittingly come up against some kind of principle followed by the teachers, but which may not have been widely communicated or understood by parents.
One such case I remember well; a parent, who was in his professional life a film director, approached the College with a proposal to start a film club. The idea was that once a month or so he would set up a big screen in the school theatre, provide all necessary equipment and show films of real artistic worth to an audience of pupils and parents. He would provide an introductory lecture himself or invite his contacts from the industry to come and talk to the audience, either before the showing or in a Q&A session afterwards. The income from ticket sales would go towards school funds. A wonderful offer, one would have thought, and something that surely most schools would have welcomed with open arms.
What happened when the proposal came to a meeting of the College was that several teachers were clearly opposed to it, on the grounds that Rudolf Steiner had made disparaging comments about cinema and its effects on human beings; and that in a world overwhelmed by technology, together with the impact that electronic devices were having on the attention levels of the pupils in their classrooms, the school should do nothing further to encourage more technology in the school. The school’s policy at the time was that ideally pupils should not have access to computers or mobile phones until they were at least 14 years old, but a combination of social media, peer pressure and parental unwillingness to conform to this policy was making it extremely difficult to hold the line.
I was reminded of all this when I came across a book called The Future Art of Cinema – Rudolf Steiner’s Vision* by Reto Andrea Savoldelli, a Swiss filmmaker and scholar of anthroposophy. What surprised me about this book was the author’s contention that Rudolf Steiner was not opposed to cinema per se and that, if he had lived longer, he would have been involved in seeking to develop a cinematic art of genuine benefit to humanity.
According to Herbert Hahn, when Steiner was living in Berlin, “he went to the cinema from time to time to see especially typical and characteristic new films”. Probably most anthroposophists, myself included, would have formed their idea of Steiner’s attitude to these early films from a lecture he gave in Berlin on 27th February 1917:
“It is quite natural that the world today should be confronted with impulses leading entirely to materialism. That cannot be prevented, it is connected with the deep needs of the age. But a counterbalance must be established. One very prominent means of driving man into materialism is the cinematograph. It has not been observed from this standpoint; but there is no better school for materialism than the cinema. For what one sees there is not reality as men see it. Only an age which has so little idea of reality as this age of ours, which worships reality as an idol in a material sense, could believe that the cinema represents reality. Any other age would consider whether men really walk along the street as seen at the cinema; people would ask themselves whether what they saw at such a performance really corresponded to reality. Ask yourselves frankly and honourably, what is really most like what you see in the street: a picture painted by an artist, an immobile picture, or the dreadful sparkling pictures of the cinematograph. If you put the question to yourselves quite honourably, you will admit that what the artist reproduces in a state of rest is much more like what you see. Hence, while people are sitting at the cinema, what they see there does not make its way into the ordinary faculty of perception, it enters a deeper, more material stratum than we usually employ for our perception. A man becomes etherically goggle-eyed at the cinema; he develops eyes like those of a seal, only much larger, I mean larger etherically. This works in a materialising way, not only upon what he has in his consciousness, but upon his deepest sub-consciousness. Do not think I am abusing the cinematograph; I should like to say once more that it is quite natural it should exist, and it will attain far greater perfection as time goes on. That will be the road leading to materialism. But a counterbalance must be established, and that can only be created in the following way. With the search for reality which is being developed in the cinema, with this descent below sense-perception, man must at the same time develop an ascent above it, an ascent into Spiritual reality. Then the cinema will do him no harm, and he can see it as often as he likes. But unless the counterbalance is there, people will be led by such things as these, not to have their proper relation to the earth, but to become more and more closely related to it, until at last, they are entirely shut off from the Spiritual world”.
From this, it is clear that Steiner did not have a high opinion of cinema at that time. But Savoldelli has unearthed an interesting letter from J E Zeylmans van Emmichoven, published in the April 1983 issue of Info3 in response to an article by Michael Ende on the artistic potential of the cinema:
“Michael Ende says that Rudolf Steiner was opposed to cinema, and that he even has evidence of comments to that effect by Dr Steiner. I would therefore like to put it on record that, curiously, I can testify to the opposite. For five years I was secretary to the Dutch publisher Pieter de Haan, who joined the Society in 1912, and, until 1924, had many conversations with Rudolf Steiner. Thus he had a very close acquaintance with him. Mr de Haan often told me that Dr Steiner wanted us to make films. Rudolf Steiner said that it was a suitable medium for presenting the laws of destiny in the course of recurring incarnations. It is my belief that Dr Steiner was a little different from how many nowadays imagine him to have been”.
A very intriguing thought – so what kind of films would Rudolf Steiner have wanted to be made? Here Savoldelli is constrained by the paucity of available evidence but, as an anthroposophist and filmmaker himself, he cites several examples that he believes indicate the kind of direction in which Steiner would have wanted the art of film to develop. These include forerunner experiments with technical stage developments for eurythmy performances that were devised by Jan Stuten and Hans Jenny (there is a very good account of their groundbreaking work with Steiner here), as well as the work of film directors such as Pasolini, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Godard, Kurosawa, Allen, Cassavetes, Wenders, Malick and many others. And of course, George Lucas in his Star Wars Saga, made much (unacknowledged) use of Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual science: the duality of evil, which Steiner presented as the battle waged for possession of the human being in the world of spirit between Ahriman and Lucifer, appears in Star Wars as the opposition between Jabba and Vader, whose characteristics strongly resemble those described by Steiner.
We know that, for atheists, it is impossible to conceive of life outside of physical biology. Life, whether conscious or not, is supposed by many natural scientists to be an impossibility without the existence of a physical organism. This narrow thinking leads to atheism, while spiritual-scientific thinking leads to anthroposophy. It is this distinction which lies at the core of hostility by atheists towards anthroposophy and it is based upon Fear – a subconscious fear of the spirit. Fear is the opposite of Love and is one of the most primitive and dangerous of emotions. It is therefore very interesting that Steiner should have suggested to Jan Stuten the theme of ‘Fear’ as a suitable subject for his light-play project.
Stuten took up this theme and initially drafted a series of 15 colour sketches, conceived as staging guidelines, which show the metamorphosis of an intensifying fear through death and resurrection until it is overcome in a peacefully illumined world. He also started to draft musical compositions for each picture or scene. Savoldelli states that the film people around Walt Disney studied Stuten’s 15 sketches on ‘The Metamorphoses of Fear’ with great interest and these, together with the movement language of eurythmy, had an influence on Fantasia, which appeared in 1940.
Savoldelli says that, for Rudolf Steiner, the inartistic nature of cinema lay, among other things, in the fact that transitions facilitated by cuts remain empty, since they are created by purely technical means. And he quotes Steiner from lecture 6 of the Tone Eurythmy course (25thFebruary 1924):
“Now, why is there such a strong urge in our modern age to deviate from the purely musical realm? Something quite beautiful may sometimes result from this deviation from what is purely musical, but why is the urge to deviate from it so strong? It is because the contemporary person has gradually acquired an attitude of mind in which he is no longer able to dream, no longer able to meditate. He has nothing within to set him into movement, and wants to be set into movement from outside. But this being-set-into-movement from outside can never produce a musical mood. In order that modern civilisation could furnish proof of its unmusical nature, it has laid hold of a drastic means to do so. It is really as though, in its concealed depths of soul, modern civilisation wanted to provide the clearest proof that it is unmusical. And the proof is given in that it has produced the film. The film is the clearest proof that those who like it are unmusical. For the whole basis of films is that they only permit those things to be active in the soul which do not arise out of the inner life of the soul, but which are stimulated from outside”.
This is a far-reaching verdict if we consider that it is precisely in the intervals, thus the spaces and transitions in sensory data, that spiritual content can find entry into an artwork. It should be mentioned in this connection that, for Steiner:
“Fundamentally speaking, music is the human being, and indeed it is from music that we rightly learn how to free ourselves from matter. For if music were to become materialistic, it would actually be false: it is not ‘there’! Every other form of matter is present in the world and is insistent. But musical sounds are not to be found in the material world in their original form. We have to devise a means of producing them; they must first be made. The soul element that lives in the human being lies between the notes. But today, because the world has become so unmusical, people are scarcely aware of it”.
I can’t find an online source for the following quotation, which comes from a lecture given by Rudolf Steiner in Stuttgart on 11thJuly 1923. The translation is by Matthew Barton:
“…Please do not take the negative things I say negatively. I don’t want to take anything away from modern culture. The more things are developed, the more enthusiasm I have for them. I don’t want to get rid of either telegraphy or cinema – such a thing would never occur to me. But it is really necessary to consider that two things oppose each other everywhere. The world is entirely taken up with externalisation. And just as one has to dry oneself after taking a bath so the balance must be redressed by immersing oneself in the spirit if, by contrast, a culture of outward tangibility is continually increasing. It is precisely this that will prompt us to become all the more active: being externally caught up in things that no longer work through us but work upon us so that we ourselves are excluded as soul and spirit…”
So, as always with Rudolf Steiner, he reminds us that as human beings we are not just physical beings and that the other half of our existence is lived within the spiritual, unseen realm. It is this subtle realm with which we need to connect if we are not only to understand what it truly means to be a human being but also to give our body, soul and spirit the chance to develop in the way that evolution intended.
And what happened with the proposal to start a film club at our Steiner school? Well, after a great deal of discussion back and forth, it was eventually agreed that the club could start and that the College of Teachers would be given in advance a list of the films to be screened, with a right of veto over any works it considered to be unacceptable (the College never turned down any of the suggested titles). After a flurry of initial interest and several screenings, audience numbers dwindled to a point where the parent organising the programme decided that it was no longer worthwhile to continue – and that was that.
* Published by Temple Lodge Publishing Ltd, ISBN 978 1 912230 40 2