Lucy Benjamin: Authenticating Reality

The Return of Black and White Cinema


The immediacy with which film and reality are linked is a relationship founded in virtue of the mechanical lens of cinema. That the camera can accurately reproduce the intricacies of reality provides cinema with a status in regards to reality that sits above painting or the other forms of art. And yet, this account for the realism inherent to cinema underwent an aesthetic revolution in the mid-twentieth century that has yet to be accounted for in the rhetoric of cinematic realism, the introduction of colour cinema.

Black and white film pre-1950 was considered an authentic form of reality; hence it is this understanding of filmic reality that frames my argument. The relation between authenticity and aesthetics within the realm of »reality« will be incorporated within Walter Benjamin’s definition of the former: "The authenticity of a thing is the quintessence of all that is transmissible in it from its origin on, ranging from its physical duration to the historical testimony elating to it" (SW3, p. 103).

It will thus be the project of my paper to demonstrate that the aesthetic return to black and white cinema in recent years marks a moment in film history that demands a reconsideration of reality. This demand is underlined by the potential of the political that Benjamin denotes within authenticity. This project will be undertaken via several black and white European films of the past 20 years and their varying accounts of »reality«. It will be through this reconsideration that Benjamin’s asserted »social significance« of film will be re-evaluated.