Gedächtnisverlußt durch Gasvergiftung: Ein Mensch ohne Zeitgedächtnis (1935) [Memory loss through gas poisoning: a man without memory of time] was produced by the Universum-Film AGA with the support of the German Research Foundation and Bayer Leverkusen. This version of the film has translated subtitles provided by Benjamin Graham, Carl Craver and Lena Kaestner, and it appeared first here, to complement the article ‘Remembering Mr B’ by Carl F. Craver, Benjamin Graham, and R. Shayna Rosenbaum in Cortex. The original film was preserved by, and is available courtesy of, the German Bundesarchiv.
The film documents the case of Franz Breundl, a furnace blast repairman in Gelsenkirchen, Germany who was hospitalised in 1926 after an accident at the Schalker Verein, which exposed him to carbon monoxide (Craver, et al, 2014). He was later assessed to have lost his ability to form new memories, a neurological disorder which this film seeks to document, in part via what Kathryn Schoefert has called the staccato of questions put to Breundl by his psychologist and the case’s presenter, Gustav Störring (Schoefert, 2015). In a mode made necessary because Breundl did not have the memory capacity to remember the question from beginning to end, Störring asks Breundl the same questions repeatedly – ‘What is your name? What is your name? What is your name? What is your name? – until Breundl, finally able to hold both the beginning and end of the question in his mind at the same time, can answer, only to forget his own answer halfway through: ’Franz Br,’ he initially replies.
Störring demonstrates the anachronism of Breundl’s life since 1926 by asking him questions intended to situate him, for audiences, unequivocally in time. ‘Do you know Adolf Hitler? Do you know Hitler, Do you know Hitler?’ Do you know Hitler? Do you know Hitler?’ Störring asks. Breundl makes no reply. ‘Have you heard of Hitler? Have you heard of Hitler? Heard of Hitler? Heard of Hitler?’ Störring further presses. Breundl hesitantly says no. It is 1926, not 1935.
Case Br was later the subject of great controversy, in part over the very method – demonstrated here – by which his neurological deficits had been ascertained and were displayed. Schoefert notes that the showing of this film, at a conference in the 1950s, did not elicit the hoped-for effect, of unequivocal agreement that Breundl’s condition was as Störring and others had claimed. Schoefert offers an important analysis of the reasons behind these critiques from the perspective of the history of psychiatry.
Here I want to propose a few additional questions, about the role of film in the funny sort of memory game Störring and Breundl play. Breundl’s deficits are particularly well-illustrated structurally, against the backdrop of an instrument, the motion picture camera, that also holds time, in certain respects confining us to the single moment in which the film was made. We watch now what by the 1950s was criticised in part for putting forward the outmoded methods – methods frozen in time – of psychology as it stood in Hitler’s Germany, in 1935. That these methods are set to a man frozen in yet another time, Breundl’s 1926, thickly layers the film: it is 2017, no it is 1953, no it is 1935, no it is 1926.
There is also the character of Störring’s filmic methods. Playing two roles here, as Breundl’s ‘physician’ as well as the film’s presenter, Störring tells a story that is both by him and about him; he interrupts his own relentless barrage of questions – sometimes in mid-asking – to pause the action and address the film’s audience. As he relates to them, often with apparent feeling, the story unfolding in front of them, Breundl, now banished to the background, sits idly by, frozen for the moment, now not in 1926 or 1935, but as a narrative in pause, requiring the return of Störring to the story before the narrative can continue…..etc.
Kathryn’s fascinating blog posts opens up a space for intriguing questions. In the clip, we see how this “Case Br”, otherwise known as Mr. Franz Breundl, thoroughly questioned by the presenter Gustav Störring. The “memory game”, as Kathryn frames it, has another layer yet. By repeatedly asking the same question over and over again – to make sure he is understood -it is as if Störring constantly re-negotiates Breundl “as a case”. Yes, he has no memory and no, this does not suddenly come back. We, the viewers, are aware of this peculiar situation right from the beginning, when Störring almost proudly introduces “the case”.
Next to this, by claiming how hard this has been for him, Störring seems to reclaim attention. This is an even more dramatic gesture. As if without presenter, there would be no case, and without presenter, no curiosity… The filmic methods show to be of great help to build towards this case-presentation drama and how it unfolds, leaving us (viewers) with a bit of an unheimisch feeling, when we see that at the end of the clip Franz becomes restless because it’s six o’clock and he isn’t at work yet, as was his daily routine back in 1925.
“I hope that you have learnt from these few situations what the human psyches looks like”, Storring adds, readdressing the viewer again, before the clip ends (“Ende”). The end of what? Certainly of one of Franz’s isolated, ephemeral moments, lost in thought about a lost time.
Carl F Craver, Benjamin Graham, and R. Shayna Rosenbaum, ‘Remember Mr B’ Cortex 2014 30: 1-32.
Kathryn Schoefert, ‘The view from the psychiatric laboratory: The research of Ernst Grünthal and his mid-twentieth-century peers’, pp 115-160. University of Cambridge, unpublished dissertation, 2015.