In 1933, Walter Benjamin, one of the most brilliant literary and cultural critics of his time, fled Berlin when the Nazis took over and headed for Paris. There he sat, at the Bibliothèque nationale, working in poverty and relative obscurity on his most important project, “The Arcades Project.”
With the backdrop of totalitarianism spreading across the European continent, Benjamin explored the origins of modernity. Praising the poet Charles Baudelaire and employing his emblematic characters especially the flâneur and the rag picker, Benjamin wanted to counter the “false semblance of totality.” This enormous incomplete study is both a collection of sources for a radical history of 19th century Paris and the basis for an allegorical critique of European fascism in the 1930s.
What Benjamin sought was “images, not stories.” Stories were too complete for him; by contrast, images could be recombined, or recomposed, into a montage. Thus he was a fan of documentary film that could create the surprising and revealing juxtapositions he was after.
In 1940, as the Nazi armies invaded Paris, Benjamin gave over his Arcades notes, to the writer George Bataille, who hid them in the Bibliothèque nationale and fled.
Benjamin had been interned in 1939 as an enemy alien and suffered from a heart condition. Despite his weakened condition, the only way out was to cross clandestinely over the Pyrenees to Spain on what should have been the way to the United States via Portugal. He carried a brief case that contained a manuscript he described as “more important than my life.” Refused at the border, his visa not recognized, and about to be turned over to the Gestapo, Benjamin took the morphine he had been carrying in his pocket, and committed suicide.
The material he carried with him was lost. But over a thousand pages of notes for the major work of his life were recovered from the Bibliothèque nationale after the war. The “Arcades Project,” published in an English edition in 1999, is one of the most brilliant interpretations of early modern life.
This film presents the “The Arcades Project” in the context of Benjamin’s life and times. True to the spirit of Benjamin, “fragments” from his life and work in the 1930s are points of entry to explore his wider biography, from his family and childhood in Berlin, to his unconventional education, his travel to Moscow, and his life in exile in Paris. The film addresses Benjamin’s concerns as a German-Jewish intellectual, his friendships, and his failed romances.
The story is told, as much as possible, through Benjamin’s own writings, his correspondence, and quotations from The Arcades Project. The film incorporates footage and photographs of nineteenth and twentieth-century Paris, particularly the arcades, interviews with leading scholars, photographs of Benjamin, his family and associates, his handwritten manuscripts, notes, letters, and his flight from France to Port Bou Spain where he ended his life. Benjamin scholars are interviewed among them Howard Eiland, Susan Buck-Morss, Sigrid Weigel.
Walter Benjamin has wide and deep influences in many fields as a foremost intellectual of the 20th century. This one hour documentary should engage anyone interested in European culture and its fate in the 1920s to 1940s.