Defending Pathos In Film

Pathos in Film. We think of Hollywood movies, patriotic speeches, sappy music, Michael
Moore. And we shrink back. A good film is without pathos we say. „Then name a film that is
free of pathos“, somebody asks. Ha! This question doesn‘t bother us since we can take refuge with Italian neorealism. „Haven‘t you seen Paisà or Rome Open City?“, we snap back. Rough, hard, clean films. „I have“, the skeptic answers, „but I‘ve also seen Battleship Potemkin and Casablanca. And the question I want to pose is more general: What‘s to say against pathos in film? But before you try to answer it please allow me to invite a friend of mine to our discussion. Let him for a second defend pathos in film.“

So the skeptic goes on: „First what do we mean when we talk about pathos in film? The following definition is taken from this friend of mine, and I would propose we use it for our small dispute: Pathos shows its affect – when the spectator is compelled to jump from his seat. When he is compelled to collapse where he stands. When he is compelled to applaud, to cry out. When his eyes are compelled to shine with delight, before gushing tears of delight… In brief – when the spectator is forced to go out of himself.“

„Pathos, he continues, consists of whatever ‚sends‘ the spectator into ecstasy… ex-stasis
literally, ‚standing out of oneself‘. But the crucial point that my friend makes, and maybe by
now you already noticed that my dear friend is nobody less than Sergei Eisenstein, is the following: to go out of oneself is not to go into nothing. To go out of oneself inevitably implies a transition to something else, to something different in quality, to something opposite to what was.“

Here we have to interrupt the skeptic and his Russian friend: „That is exactly why I don‘t
want to see pathos in film. Pathos means loosing control, manipulation and propaganda. Your
Russian friend is a communist, no wonder he is defending pathos in such flowery language.“

„You miss the point“, the skeptic replies. „Pathos isn‘t about manipulation or propaganda.
Instead it highlights a central function of art. We read a poem, we see a painting, we hear a
song, and something changes. We make a new experience, we leave the state we were in
before, we go out of ourself. We see the world differently than we saw it before. That is what
pathos is all about.“

„Now you may counter“, the skeptic continues, „that this is a far too broad concept of pathos.
That not every new experience has to do with pathos, that changes of our opinion and worldview are not always triggered by pathos. And you‘re right. Instead we should understand pathos as tendency, as the most extreme form of a mechanism of which at least small particles can be found in every process of reception.
That‘s why in the end I just don‘t see a reason to reject pathos in film. To be frankly, I like
them both, Paisà and Potemkin.“

And we shrug.

Martin Bartenberger, 2012



* Eisenstein‘s quotes were taken from „The Structure Of The Film“, in Film Form (ed. Jay Leyda), p.166f. For better readability the exact quotes aren‘t highlighted and a few quotation marks were removed.