Diegelman (ca 1945)

Diegelman, ca 1945.

“Diegelman” begins with a series of tests that would have been familiar to the faithful viewer of Kurt Goldstein’s work. These observational studies required little equipment: a panel of white cloth stretched behind Diegelman foregrounds certain elements, designating them as vital, and others as irrelevant, to this experimental space. A chair and occasionally a cane alert the viewer to the relevant body parts under examination. The motion picture camera captures the result, for posterity. As in many of the early to mid-twentieth century medical and scientific films, including several of Goldstein’s own, the focus here was on Diegelman’s body or, more critically, on the motion of that body in time and space. From these motions, Goldstein learned a great deal, about a body’s “preferred” postures and movements and the specific neurological injuries that a body’s preferences might indicate (1).

The preferences of Diegelman’s body tilt him, to the right. We see him, eyes firmly closed, sitting, then standing in the centre of the frame, before inevitably tilting: failing to stave off his body’s predilection for its own right-hand side. The tests increase in complexity, at first by involving more body parts in an expanded range of positions. Extended arms, first to the front then to the sides; the addition of a head movement to the repertoire complicates things further. The gradual inclusion of further instrumentation: a bell, a chalkboard join the cane in populating the experimental set. At what feels like the film’s dramatic apex, we watch Diegelman, his back now to the camera, contemplate shapes drawn in chalk on a board in front of him and just slightly above his head. Confronted with the task of copying these, and armed with a chalk-tipped wand, Diegelman tries, but fails, time after time to re-create rectangles, circles, squares.

There are many reasons to find this film remarkable: Goldstein’s exhibition of his testing mechanisms especially as related to his theory of the organism certainly stands as one of these, as Geroulanos and Meyers insightfully describe. (2). But there is also Diegelman’s demeanour. We know his name, we see his clothes. His stance as patient turned test subject turned actor makes us wonder about his personality, his character; his movements make us wonder about the status of his ‘injury’: can he can be healed, does he need or want to be. Is tilting to the right such a bad thing after all. Diegelman’s hands and eyes intrigue; the latter nearly always shut in the film, with only short moments of awakening. But he does not look at us. There is also the persistent relationship between motion and neurology and psychology. We are called to attend to Diegelman’s motions more than anything, as though the body in motion, if read properly, was both conduit to and encapsulation of the secretive activities of the brain itself.

But here I want to make a note about instrumentation. It seems all so banal. Yes, in other films, there are strange-looking apparatuses that break the tedium of the everyday. In ‘Tonus’ (1939), for example, the patient wears things resembling ear muffs, attached to a tube, from which Goldstein occasionally puffs air into his ears. But there are also violins; there is more chalk, more canes and chairs. There is walking, sitting and standing. These offer up a feeling that these activities are mundane, that the film is not edited, that what we see is what we get: yards of film so repetitive and silent that it might seem boring. But it is certainly not misleading. Indeed, for all of its boredom, and stylistic awkwardness, it seems all the more genuine. (3)

It is a surprise, then, to catch glimpses of the experimental apparatus as we do here in this clip. As we finally see Diegelman’s whole body, we also see the lights that shine on Diegelman, casting a shadow behind him onto the white cloth. And we see that the white cloth really does set the margins of a small ‘set’. We catch a glimpse of the room around Diegelman; a window to his left, with a chair or perhaps a small table in front of it. Albeit still briefly, Diegelman’s eyes are open; he seems finally to acknowledge us, holding the camera in his gaze for several seconds. And we are forced, in this moment of utter transparency to recognise the artificiality of the space. The camera, the canes, the stretched cloth, the lights are all implements of the experiment, even as they are also props in a kind of neurological cinema. This revelation calls our attention to editing choices, indicated not only by continuity errors (an object in one position is quite suddenly in another) but also by cuts that quickly take us to the next series of experimentation. Who made these editing choices? When did the director’s ‘cut!’ become a technical term of neurological study?

Comment (KS)

Intriguing to consider that it is the film’s very repetitiveness and awkwardness that make it a genuine document for its audiences. Even Diegelman could not repeat his exact motions. If he concentrated on replicating particular patterns, it was more likely that he would render them false. Only closing his eyes and letting his mind wander, did his nervous system perform faithfully.

This insistence on the unwitting subject reinforces film as an experimental practice. The neurological tests and motions Diegelman underwent, were accompanied by a battery of psychological tests—assessing cognitive functions and sensory perceptions—that drew from experimental psychology of the Würzburg school. The Würzburg school set out to construct the (normal) subject (Danziger 1990), developing elaborate procedures to create subjects that were trained and trustworthy. Subjects were often familiar with the experimental set-up, but did not know whether reactions were being measured or not, what experiments set out to assess, or whether stimuli were being mocked up or not.

The emphasis on the genuine was also a response to the widespread worry about war-time malingering which surrounded nervous disorders. Diegelman’s motions were unforced and boring—unlike the striking early neurological photographs such as Duchenne’s images of facial expressions, or Nonne’s films of cases of cured shell-shock, filmed two decades earlier. Both were based on illusions. For the film plate to register the patients’ contractions, Duchenne needed to stimulate the facial nerve for prolonged periods even though the photographs purport to show an instant reaction (Aubert 2010, 291). Nonne’s films of hysteria, produced around 1917, claimed to show patients before treatment, but in fact relied on hypnosis to elicit pre-treatment symptoms in patients subsequently discussed as ‘cured’ (Lerner 2003). It was also accepted that neurologists practiced movement patterns with patients, before filming them as a 1919 textbook on neurological film demonstrates (Wieser 1919).

The director’s cut, the trained experimental subject, and other authorial interventions were therefore accepted. Yet, films were also dangerously subject to being condemned as portraying illusions—as the virulent post-war criticism of Ernst Grünthal and Gustav Störring’s Case Br, discussed elsewhere on this site, illustrated.

None of this—this problem of artifice—is particularly surprising. But: If film emphasises the repetitiveness, awkwardness, and indeterminacy of a body’s movements which are said to depict nervous system action—does this suggest that the nervous system is also imprecise? If film defamiliarised motion, as Auerbach has argued (Auerbach 2007), does it also defamiliarise the brain and nervous system? Rather than showing the brain either as intact governor or as broken machine, these meandering clips indicate a more plastic, adaptable, malleable, and flawed web of interactions.


Aubert, G. ‘Neurological illustration : from photography to cinematography’ in S. Finger, F. Boller and K.L. Tyler, Handbook of clinical neurology : vol. 95 history of neurology (Elsevier 2010), 289-302.

Auerbach, J. Body shots: early cinema’s incarnations (UC Press, 2007).

Danziger, K. Constructing the subject: historical origins of psychological research. Cambridge: CUP, 1990.

Lerner, P. ‘The powers of suggestion: Science, magic, and modernity in the therapeutic arsenal’, in: idem, Hysterical Men: War, Psychiatry, and the Politics of Trauma in Germany, 1890-1930 (Cornell UP, 2003), 86-123.

Weiser, M. Medizinische Kinematographie (1919).

1. Stefanos Geroulanos and Todd Meyers, ‘Integrations, Vigilance, Catastrophe: The Neuropsychiatry of Aphasia in Henry Head and Kurt Goldstein’ in David Bates and Nima Bassiri eds, Plasticity and Pathology: On the Formation of the Neural Subject (Berkeley, CA: Townsend Centre for the Humanities/Fordham University Press), 2016, pp 112-158.
2. Stefanos Geroulanos and Todd Meyers, Experimente in Individuum: Kurt Goldstein und die Frage des Organismus (Berlin: August Verlag, 2014), 79-83.
3. Kirsten Ostherr, Medical Visions: Producing the Patient Through Film, Television, and Imaging Technologies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).