One Way Street

The very notion of an experimental arty documentary about the great German writer Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) seems rather comic, so one may well wonder why Australian filmmaker John Hughes made this hour-long film (1992), complete with dramatized events from Benjamin’s life, interviews with intellectuals, clips from Rene Clair’s Entr’acte and Dziga Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera, contemporary globe-trotting that takes in the Eiffel Tower as well as the small town where Benjamin committed suicide, and loads of fabulous sound bites and printed or spoken aphorisms delivered like slogans. The fact that Hughes’s spelling is occasionally faulty seems symptomatic: there’s something faintly absurd about a film about Benjamin made for semiliterates. One can learn a little here, and I enjoyed hearing the intelligent talk of Elizabeth Young-Bruehl and Susan Buck-Morss, among others. But some of this is tacky beyond words (e.g., an Australian actor who looks like Groucho Marx reenacting Benjamin’s morphine overdose on camera). You might consider your time better spent reading or rereading Benjamin. (JR)

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