Tonus (c1939)

The footage is not exciting. In most takes of Goldstein’s films—in all? we have so few of them—the camera is stationary throughout a scene, trained on its subject. In the film clip some label ‘Tonus’ (Geroulanos & Meyers 2014), a subject thus sits nearly centred in the frame.

Tasks are repetitive. Index-finger pointed, a right hand is raised, returned to the lap, raised again, returned. Then the other. The film spools. Cut. The arms are extended, a white coated man turns the patient’s head. More cuts. Still the subject sits, eyes closed, patiently, rhythmically, lifting a hand while keys are jangled, lights flash in darkened glasses, water or air rushes against the patient’s inner ear, the patient’s head is tilted, a violin is played. Muscles fatigue.

In their discussion of Goldstein’s films, Stefanos Geroulanos and Todd Meyers describe these sequences as experiment and therapy alike. Patient and doctor are jointly assessing the patient’s world—and we might add—so does the viewer.

A single turn of the action reveals little if one, like Goldstein, discredits that stimuli can only ever elicit one typical response and if one discounts the a priori presence of ‘primary’ symptoms of a disorder (Goldstein, The organism, chapter 1). The film footage thus shows the ‘whole symptomatological picture’. The repetitions disclose that the patient might maintain composure a few times or with eyes wide open, but soon there are wobbles. As the violin plays movements get wilder, arms move apart, hands no longer stay level.

The footage therefore documents the patient’s response as the neurologist piles stimulus on stimulus, teasing apart the patient’s ability to adapt. In one of ‘Tonus’ first scenes the viewer recognises that the patient’s hands are unsteadily, but the degree of variation only becomes clear as a second subject marks out their reach in chalk against a horizontal axis thereby illustrating the range of the patient’s movement. The chalk reveals, the film reveals, that as the milieu shifts and stimuli impress themselves on the patient, the patient’s neurological body shifts and adapts as well.

Some Goldstein’s contemporaries used film to establish typical movement patterns be it of neurological disorders or of a normal nervous system. No knee jerk reflex or Babinski sign needs to be demonstrated one hundred times, but the Goldstein films show a combination of stimuli creating far more complex, less stable images which spool along. The camera is trained on a single case, a single patient whose new world is being probed. It is then the camera that can show that the patient has not ‘failed’ at performing a task, but that the patient’s body adapts and compensates.

In his publications, Goldstein stated forcefully:

When detecting a change we must never forget that it is not necessarily the true extent of the change that is visible, but that we are only registering a specific effect, whose detection is dependent on the granularity, the ‘threshold’ of our medium of observation. Neglecting these prerequisites has often caused one to assume a more localised effect, because the far more diffuse effect mostly evaded our finest-grade media (Beobachtungsmittel) (384).

‘The better we became at observing, the more we came to ascertain that more or less none of the actions are performed normally anymore after a lesion in the nervous system’ (Goldstein 1925, 398).

Even the most skilled observer benefitted from scrutinising the material again, presumably including rewatching film clips of a task solved by detour a hundred times, a hundred times more.

Performed more than a hundred times, the actions and gestures were often not necessarily replicable—the key jangle was not standardised or deployed in a given order—instead each variation and complex interactions captured on film, each case minutely reviewed, potentially held new interpretations for the observer. The full frontal view thus incorporated experiments, therapies, and findings yet to come: the examination was never ‘complete’ (Goldstein, The Organism, 25). Being able to return to the films was therefore potentially one means for Goldstein to avert becoming too wedded to a theory. Film–in which the observation of actions could be replicated in ways that the action itself, the key jangle and the patient’s reaction, could not–therefore extended the threshold of observationOnly the film could capture the subject/s, environment, and the symptoms, ‘expressions of the organism’s attempt to deal with certain demands of the environment’ (ibid, 18).

At least so we assume. Goldstein did not discuss his use of films and the clips are without any conclusion. We only have a trace of a hundred performances on a strip to speculate on a particular neurological gaze.



Geroulanos, S. and T. Meyers, Experimente im Individuum: Kurt Goldstein und die Frage des Organismus (BerIin: August, 2014)

Goldstein, K. ‘Zur Theorie der Funktion des Nervensystems‘, Archiv für Psychiatrie (1925) 74: 370ff.