Film Theory: Kracauer (German Cinema)

Dec 23, 2021


“Occasionally the movies go mad. They have terrifying visions; they erupt in images that show the true face of society. However, they are healthy at the core. Their schizophrenic outbursts last only a few moments, then a curtain is lowered again and everything returns to normal.”

“The technique, the story content, and the evolution of the films of a nation are fully understandable only in relation to the actual psychological pattern of this nation.”

The films of a nation reflect its mentality in a more direct way than other artistic media for 2 reasons:

1.Films are never the product of an individual. The collective character of (Pudovkin) film–it is an industrial production; a team work.

“Since any film production unit embodies a mixture of heterogeneous interests and inclinations, team work in this field tends to exclude arbitrary handling of screen material, suppressing individual peculiarities in favor of traits common to many people.

2.Films address themselves and appeal to the anonymous multitude. Popular films, popular screen motifs, can be supposed to satisfy existing mass desires.

The manipulator (Hollywood) depends upon the inherent qualities of his material.

Even the official Nazi war films, pure propaganda, mirrored certain national characteristics, which could not be fabricated.

This applies all the more to the films of a competitive (capitalistic) society

Holly cannot afford to ignore the spontaneity on the part of the public.

The film industry’s interest in profit box office will adjust itself to the changes of the mental climate

American audiences receive what Holly wants them to receive, but in the long run, public desires determine the nature of Hollywood films.

What films reflect are not so much explicit credos as “psychological dispositions, those layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimension of consciousness.”

Popular magazines. broadcasts, bestsellers, ads, fashion also yield valuable information about predominant attitudes and widespread inner tendencies.

But the film medium extends these sources in inclusiveness and reach.

Films record the visible world (current reality or imaginary universe) and they therefore provide clues to hidden mental processes.

The revealing functions of close-ups, the unseen dynamics of human relations.

Films suggest mass desires, coincide with box-office popularity.

The most popular films may reflect popular dreams–the same dreams over and over again.

What counts is not the statistical popularity of films, as the popularity of their pictorial and narrative motifs.

There is persistent reiteration of these motifs, sport of outward projections of inner urges.

When these motifs occur in popular and unpopular films, they are more powerful.

The history of German cinema is the history of pervading motifs.


Kracauer Biography:

Kracauer (born February 8, 1889–November 26, 1966) was a German writer, journalist, sociologist, cultural critic, and film theorist. He has been associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

He is notable for arguing that realism is the most important function of cinema.

Born to a Jewish family in Frankfurt am Main, Kracauer studied architecture from 1907 to 1913, eventually obtaining a doctorate in engineering in 1914 and working as architect in Osnabrück, Munich, and Berlin until 1920.

Near the end of the First World War, he befriended the young Theodor W. Adorno, and became an early philosophical mentor.

In 1964, Adorno recalled the importance of Kracauer’s influence: “for years Siegfried Kracauer read the Critique of Pure Reason with me regularly on Saturday afternoons. I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that I owe more to this reading than to my academic teachers. […] If in my later reading of philosophical texts I was not so much impressed with their unity and systematic consistency as I was concerned with the play of forces at work under the surface of every closed doctrine and viewed the codified philosophies as force fields in each case, it was certainly Kracauer who impelled me to do so.

Kracauer continued this trend over the next few years, building up theoretical methods of analyzing circuses, photography, films, advertising, tourism, city layout. In 1927, he published the work Ornament der Masse (published in English as The Mass Ornament) which emphasizes the tremendous value of studying the masses and popular culture.

In 1930, Kracauer published Die Angestellten (The Salaried Masses), a critical look at the lifestyle and culture of the new class of white-collar employees. Spiritually homeless, and divorced from custom and tradition, these employees sought refuge in the new “distraction industries” of entertainment. Observers note that many of these lower-middle class employees were quick to adopt Nazism, three years later.

In review of Die Angestellten, Benjamin praised the concreteness of Kracauer’s analysis, writing that “[t]he entire book is an attempt to grapple with a piece of everyday reality, constructed here and experienced now. Reality is pressed so closely that it is compelled to declare its colors and name names.”

Kracauer became increasingly critical of capitalism (influenced by Marx) and eventually broke away from the Frankfurter Zeitung. About this same time (1930), he married Lili Ehrenreich. He was also very critical of Stalinism and the “terrorist totalitarianism” of the Soviet government.

With the rise of the Nazis in Germany in 1933, Kracauer emigrated to Paris.

In March 1941, thanks to the French ambassador Henri Hoppenot and his wife, Hélène Hoppenot, he emigrated to the U.S., with other German refugees like John Rewald.

From 1941 to 1943 he worked in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, supported by Guggenheim and Rockefeller scholarships for his work in German film.

He published From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947), which traces the birth of Nazism from the cinema of the Weimar Republic as well as helping lay the foundation of modern film criticism.

In 1960, he released Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, which argued that realism is the most important function of cinema.

In his last years, Kracauer worked as a sociologist for different institutes, amongst them in New York as director of research for applied social sciences at Columbia University. He died there, in 1966, from pneumonia.

His last book is the posthumously published History, the Last Things Before the Last (Oxford University Press, 1969).

Kracauer’s theories on memory focus on the idea that memory was under threat and was being challenged by modern forms of technology.

His most cited example was the comparison of memory to photography. The reason: photography, in theory, replicates some of the tasks currently done by memory.

The differences in the functions of memory and of photography, according to Kracauer, is that photography creates one fixed moment in time whereas memory itself is not beholden to a singular instance. Photography is capable of capturing the physicality of a particular moment, but it removes any depth or emotion that might otherwise be associated with the memory. In essence, photography cannot create a memory, but rather, it can create an artifact. Memory, on the other hand, is not beholden to one particular moment of time, nor is it purposefully created. Memories are impressions upon a person that they can recall due to the significance of the event or moment

Photography can also record time in linear way, and Kracauer even hints that floods of photographs ward off death by creating a sort of permanence. However, photography also excludes the essence of a person, and over time photographs lose meaning and become a “heap of details.”

Kracauer did not feel that photography has no use for memory, it is simply that he felt that photography held more potential for historical memory than for personal memory. Photography allows for a depth of detail that can be to the advantage of a collective memory, such as how a city or town once appeared because those aspects can be forgotten, or overridden throughout time as the physical landscape of the area changes.

Although he wrote for popular and scholarly publications throughout his career, in the United States (and in English) he mainly concentrated on philosophical and sociological writings. This attracted some criticism from American scholars who found his style difficult to penetrate. At the time of his death in 1966, Kracauer was marginal in both American and German intellectual contexts. He had long ago abandoned writing in German, yet his research remained difficult to place within American scientific and academic categories.

His former colleague from Frankfurt, Leo Löwenthal, expressed pleasant surprise at the newfound fame around Kracauer in his death. Since the 1980s and 1990s a new generation of film theorists and critics, including Gertrud Koch, Miriam Hansen, Tom Levin and Thomas Elsaesser have interpreted his work for new generation of scholars.

Kracauer, Siegfried (1928). Ginster.
Kracauer, Siegfried (1947). From Caligari to Hitler.
Kracauer, Siegfried (1960). Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality.
Kracauer, Siegfried; Paul Oskar Kristeller (1969). History: The Last Things Before the Last.
Kracauer, Siegfried (1971). Der Detektiv-Roman – Ein philosophischer Traktat.
Kracauer, Siegfried (1973). Georg.
Kracauer, Siegfried; Thomas Y. Levin (1995). The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays.
Kracauer, Siegfried; Quintin Hoare (1998). The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany.
Kracauer, Siegfried; Gwenda David; Eric Moshbacher (2002). Jacques Offenbach and the Paris of His Time.
Kracauer, Siegfried; Johannes von Moltke (2012). Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings: Essays on Film and Popular Culture.

Kracauer, Siegfried; trans. Carl Skoggard (2016). Georg. ISBN 9781624621406

Frankfurt School
Dudley Andrew, The Major Film Theories: An Introduction, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976, Part II.
Theodor W. Adorno, “The Curious Realist: On Siegfried Kracauer,” in Notes on Literature, Volume 2, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson, New York: Columbia University Press, p. 58.
Kracauer, Siegfried (June 30, 2005). Levin, Thomas (ed.). The Mass Ornament : Weimar Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674551633.
Walter Benjamin, “An Outsider Makes His Mark,” trans. Rodney Livingstone, in Selected Writings, Volume 2, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 307.
Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, New York: Oxford University Press, 1960, p.221
John Rewald to Henri Hoppenot, 3 October 1941, Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet, Paris, Ms 14117.
Leslie, Esther (2010). “Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin: Memory from Weimar to Hitler”. In Susannah Radstone; Bill Schwarz (eds.). Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates. Fordham University Press. pp. 123–135. ISBN 978-0-8232-3259-8.

Pauline Kael, I Lost It at the Movies, Boston: Little, Brown, 1965, p. 269.

Gertrud Koch, Siegfried Kracauer: An Introduction, Princeton: Princeton, p. vii.
Miriam Hansen, Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno, University of California Press, 2011, p. vii.
Michael Kessler and Thomas Y. Levin, eds, Siegfried Kracauer. Neue Interpretationen., Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag, 1990.
Further reading
Agard, Olivier. Siegfried Kracauer. Le chiffonnier mélancolique. Paris: CNRS Editions, 2010.
Baumann, Stephanie. Im Vorraum der Geschichte. Siegfried Kracauers’ History – The Last Things Before the Last. Paderborn: Konstanz University Press, 2014.
Oschmann, Dirk. Auszug aus der Innerlichkeit. Das literarische Werk Siegfried Kracauers. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter 1999
Koch, Gertrud. Siegfried Kracauer: An Introduction. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Reeh, Henrik. Ornaments of the Metropolis: Siegfried Kracauer and Modern Urban Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.
Von Moltke, Johannes and Gerd Gemünden, eds. Culture in the Anteroom: The Legacies of Siegfried Kracauer. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.
Attilio Bruzzone, Siegfried Kracauer e il suo tempo (1903-1925). Il confronto con Marx, Simmel, Lukács, Bloch, Adorno, alle origini del pensiero critico, Milano-Udine: Mimesis, 2020, ISBN 978-88-5757-232-1

Studying Popular Taste:

The nature and social determinants of popular taste have been two of the least studied issues in the sociology of art and culture.  Some theoretical discussions (Gans, l975) have described a taste hierarchy, distinguising among taste subcultures and taste audiences, but there have been few empirical studies, particularly in the area of film.  The field is replete with assumptions about audiences’ motivations and preferences for particular literary or artistic forms though, with the exception of television, arts audiences have seldom been empirically studied (Austin, l973).

Furthermore, the two major studies of popular taste in film have analyzed the German (Kracauer, 1966) and French (Monaco, 1976) films of the l920s, but not the American cinema, past or present.

Most studies in the sociology of art have used the reflection theory (Albrecht, 1954, 1970), without specifying the precise interplay between art works and the society they presumably reflect.

This study examines popular taste in the American cinema over the last 60 years, from the beginning of the sound era, in 1927, to the present.  It attempts to answer one central question: what have American films told their audiences about American society and culture over the last half a century.  The focus is on the medium of film because movies have been the primary source of entertainment in the United States up to the early l950s and an important form, following television’s cultural lead, since then.

Kracauer: Critique and Beyond

The study challenges some of the theoretical premises of Kracauer’s pioneering work, which still is one of the most provocative treatises in cultural history.  Kracauer’s chief assumption is that “the films of a nation reflect its mentality in a more direct way than any other artistic media,” because they are the product of collaboration, thus “suppressing individual peculiarities in favor of traits common to many people.” (1966:5).

But Kracauer does not take into account that collaboration in film does not necessarily mean equal contribution or equal power of every participant (producer, director, writer, actor).  Indeed, the auteur theory, as developed in France by Andre Bazin and the critics of Cahiers du Cinema and, in this country, by Andrew Sarris (1968) have assigned primary role to the film’s director as the chief artistic force in filmmaking.  Kracauer further assumes that because the film industry “is vitally interested in profit,” it is “bound to adjust itself to the change in the mental climate” (1966:5), but, as Bergman (197l) pointed out, how this adjustment occurs or what exactly is the nation’s “mental climate” are never made clear.

Kracauer’s work can also be faulted on methodological grounds.  He dismisses the usefulness of box-office receipts, claiming that “what counts is not so much the statatisically measurable popularity of films as the popularity of their pictorial and narrative motifs,” and that “persistent reiteration of these motifs marks them as outward projections of inner urges.” (1966:12).  Thus, the criteria for choosing films for analysis are not singled out, and there seems to be a confusion between important and popular films.

It is possible to document, however, that movies can be commercially successful without being important, ideologically or cinematically, and vice versa, that significant films about important social issues are not necessarily popular with the lay public at large.  Finally, the most problematic aspect of Kracauer’s work is the idea that determinant features of the German cinema (humiliation, defeat, nationalism, racism, authoritarianism) reflected the “national psyche” and therefore could predict political developments, such as the rise of Nazism to power.


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