Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Freud, Marx, and *Fräulein Else*: The Psyche, the Social, and the Problem of Unrepresentability
Althea Wasow

Last modified: 2010-05-28


This paper explores two competing discourses for engaging with modernity and the consequences of modernization: the Freudian psychoanalytic mode, which emphasizes the individual subject’s unconscious, and the Marxian critique of the capitalist mode of production, which emphasizes social division, commodification, and alienation. With its dramatization of the dangers of market capitalism and the female subject’s psychic crisis and masochism, the film Fräulein Else (Paul Czinner, 1929), which features Elisabeth Bergner and was produced by her production company Poetic-Film, takes up both projects.

The psychoanalytic mode and Marxian critique collide in the film’s focus on woman as an “erotic object of the gaze” (Mulvey, 1975) that is exchanged to ensure “smooth and continuous” relations between men (Rubin, 1975). I use feminist, psychoanalytic, and social theory to examine how the film Fräulein Else disrupts the notion that “just looking”—or “just wanting to see”—is an act that can be conceived outside of relations of power or desire.

I argue that by engaging the problem of woman as a modern public visual pleasure that can be purchased, Fräulein Else prioritizes the social over the individual subject and challenges spectators to consider the complex ways in which the capitalist mode of production, the visible female body, and the cinema are intertwined. I focus on the film’s use of camera movement and abstraction as strategies to visualize the crises it seeks to represent—and to provoke the audience to question its role. By posing the problem of female subjectivity in capitalist modernity, Fräulein Else forges a space for, and anticipates, the radical potential of the melodramatic film as explored by émigré directors in 1940s and 1950s Hollywood.

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