“Specter in the Amusement Hall” (1930)

4.9.19 / Text
Siegfried Kracauer on the fluid boundary between work and play

In the Berlin cabaret Die weiße Maus (The White Mouse) at Jägerstraße, Berlin, 1920s, photo: bpk / Herbert Hoffmann

In one of the best known amusement halls in Berlin I recently observed a man who had, so to speak, set up his office there. In order to understand the particular amusement that he provided himself, it is necessary to mention that the hall itself is set up like the office of a big company. On each of the many tables one finds:

1. A telephone which serves as a connection to the outside world of the other tables.

2. A pneumatic mail terminal which makes possible the epistolary exchange of ideas with all other persons in the room.

3. A signalling device by which it can be made known whether one wishes at one’s table: a) a male dancer, b) a female dancer, c) no disturbance.

In short, the technological installations are so complete that they would do honor to the executive offices of a corporation. No doubt, their main purpose consists in relieving the visitors, who are such streamlined beings during the day, of the exertion required to amuse themselves during the evening; in awakening in the little white collar workers the illusion that they themselves are their own supervisors; in freeing the public of its fear of equipment which is not usually a harmless plaything, but, rather, something dead serious.

How well this purpose is fulfilled is evinced by the crowd that fills the place every evening. It may also be attributed in no small way to the flood of light that overflows the hall with its constantly changing colors and gives a foretaste of the splendors of paradise in which mankind will someday live in peace together with the demystified forces of technology.

That man did not at all understand the equipment as it wanted to be understood. He neither indulged himself in illusions, nor played with the signals, nor allowed himself to be seduced by the flood of light. Rather, he pursued his fun seriously, and precisely this seriousness became fun for him.

For the longest time he sat alone at his table. His chair was parted precisely in the middle, his eyebrows were two semi-circles, and his cheeks grew fuller towards the bottom as is the case with many well-off gentlemen between forty and fifty. While from time to time he strengthened himself with a sip of champagne—the less well-off could enjoy a mocha, beer or lemonade—he continued without interruption the activity to which he was apparently obliged by his occupation. He paid no attention to the dancers, he stayed in his office. His phone rang. With the air of a much harried businessman who suspects some unimportant customer to be calling with a demand, he picked up the receiver and listened. Contrary to expectations, the call appeared to concern an advantageous agreement, for his drooping cheeks filled noticeably and the top of his head shined blissfully. In the meantime two messages via pneumatic mail had arrived at his table. He left them unopened for a few minutes so as to lend himself an appearance of greater importance without which one can not advance in life. One of the messages annoyed him so much that he tore it up. He shook his head and raised his eyebrows high on a forehead that was nothing but wrinkles formed in concentric half-circles, a veritable geometric embodiment of mercantile anger. The other message moved him to much more decisive action. After he had ascertained the location of the sender’s table by looking in the telephone directory, first he carried on endless telephone conversations and then took care of an extensive correspondence which he dispatched via pneumatic mail. As long as he was writing, his table resembled a desk with many drawers and small compartments.

His business, which went on almost without pause, became even busier with the arrival of a plate of cold cuts which he consumed with pleasure. Since the plate established his credit among the women in the hall, he could hardly save himself from all of the phone calls and messages. In the quiet of his office, the invisible window closed to the clamor of the hall, he tranquilly received order after order and, for his part, dispatched large orders both orally and in writing. His eyebrows went up and down, the part of his hair changed first into a luminous aureole, then into an angry arrow. As is the case with all important businessmen, one could not learn anything about his success. If other visitors employed the various possibilities of communication in order to contact a suitable partner, then he used them, as it were, for their own sake or for secret purposes. In any case, he never got up from his seat and was also not visited by any women. However, perhaps he secretly concluded some grand transaction.

Late in the evening three men were seated at his table. They watched with amazement how he, so to speak, directed everything from his office. “You can only really enjoy yourself,” he condescendingly explained to them, “when you have a table exclusively at your disposal.” When they did not want to move, he abruptly put them to work at his business. One of the gentlemen had to answer the phone, another had to write. After a short while the three men paid and left. Either their jobs were terminated or they had quit of their own accord. The boss remained henceforth undisturbed at his desk and further dedicated himself with all his energy to the giant enterprise that amused him . . . .

He will probably carry on in this manner night after night. When the visitors have left the hall and the lights have been put out, he will still be talking on the phone without anyone listening to him and he will still be answering letters which no one has sent him. The pneumatic mail messages will be flying back and forth and signals will be flashing at the empty tables. And he, pursued by the demons of industry, will carry out all alone the amusement to which he has been damned.

—Translated by Courtney Federle

Originally published as “Spuk im Vergnügungslokal” in the Frankfurter Zeitung (vol. 75, no. 808) on 29 October 1930.

Excerpt from: Siegfried Kracauer, Courtney Federle, Translator, “Loitering: Four Encounters in Berlin; Specter in the Amusement Hall,” in Qui Parle, Volume 5, no. 2, pp. 56-58. Copyright, 1992, Editorial Board, Qui Parle. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder, and the present publisher, Duke University Press. www.dukeupress.edu