Seeing motion pictures is a matter of perception; understanding them is the perception of that perception. For the American motion picture industry, the spring of 1947 was the season certain perceptions changed.
The box office receipts that peaked in 1946 began their exorable decline. Charlie Chaplin, the world’s most popular man, reintroduced himself as a serial killer in Monsieur Verdoux; the House Committee on Un-American Activities went to Hollywood to look for Communists; Darryl Zanuck bested Jack Warner for control of the title The Iron Curtain, script to follow. And in the spring two books were published that, each in its way, put the beleaguered medium on the couch and would permanently alter the way people saw it: Parker Tyler’s Magic and Myth of the Movies and Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film.
The two books were bracketed in The New York Times Book Review. Favorably considering both, albeit with certain caveats, reviewer Eric Bentley summarized their overlapping theses: “The film is the most popular art of this or perhaps any age.”
Since, moreover, the mass audience is so calculatingly considered in the actual making of film—and since any one film is put together by so large a number of people—the films reveal more about society as a whole than any other works of art except literary masterpieces.
In other words, namely those of émigré journalist turned social scientist Kracauer, “the films of a nation reflect its mentality” (for which the surrealist poet-cum-critic Tyler might have substituted “mythology”). An obvious truth now, although not so much then. Reviewing From Caligari to Hitler in The Nation, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. praised Kracauer’s “extraordinarily fruitful and stimulating approach.” Sixty-five years later, the ideas advanced by Kracauer and Tyler permeate the popular analysis of popular culture. Kracauer’s sixty-page analysis of Nazi film propaganda, originally published as a pamphlet by the Museum of Modern Art, has hardly been surpassed; he was even, for a time, America’s leading example of what might be termed a public “film intellectual.”
Kracauer published his magnum opus, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, in 1960. This speculative treatise on “the intrinsic nature of photographic film” was respectfully received, at least initially; it was written up in The New York Times by both the paper’s Hollywood business reporter, Murray Schumach, and its lead critic, Bosley Crowther. The latter would subsequently cite one of Kracauer’s most flavorsome passages on the photographic qualities of the street (“the arena of fleeting impressions and chance encounters”) in writing about the use of Paris as a location in nouvelle vague films.
Theory of Film was not, however, universally acclaimed. Novelist and former film critic Wallace Markfield pilloried Kracauer (and Tyler) in Commentary, once Kracauer’s prime venue, and it is fair to say that Kracauer’s reputation never quite recovered from Pauline Kael’s populist takedown, “Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?”, published in the British film journal Sight and Sound in 1962, a year before her celebrated attack in Film Quarterly on auteurism and Andrew Sarris.