The Trembling Upper World: On Siegfried Kracauer

The Trembling Upper World: On Siegfried Kracauer

The Trembling Upper World: On Siegfried Kracauer

The European émigré who became a philosopher of American cinema.


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.

Kracauer, Kael began her essay,

is the sort of man who can’t say “It’s a lovely day” without first establishing that it is day, that the term “day” is meaningless without the dialectical concept of “night,” that both these terms have no meaning unless there is a world in which day and night alternate, and so forth. By the time he has established an epistemological system to support his right to observe that it’s a lovely day, our day has been spoiled.

To read Kael’s devastating—and devastatingly unfair—piece is to imagine Kracauer as played by Sig Ruman, the pompous blusterer who serves as a foil for the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera. Kael was not one to allow some stuffy German professor type to rain on her parade.

Thus, Kracauer’s acute, concrete speculations on the ontology of cinema and the relationship of motion pictures to the world fell victim to the critic’s truculent empiricism and gift for ridicule. Kracauer, Kael suggested, was not just a pedant but even something of a lunatic to take movies so seriously and ponder their nature, scoffing at his contention that cinema might be “animated by a desire to picture transient material life.” Ironically, Kracauer had been, in Frankfurt during the 1920s, something akin to what Kael would be in New York half a century later: a regular movie reviewer of unusual depth, perspicuity and style. Moreover, upon arriving in the United States in 1941 as an unknown 52-year-old refugee, Kracauer described himself—in terms that Kael might have applied to her own predilections—as a “passionate movie-goer.”

* * *

In the 1920s and early ’30s, Kracauer was all that and more. The culture editor, as well as the cultural critic, at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he was a figure of considerable importance in German intellectual life. He wrote two novels and an ethnographic study of Germany’s new “white-collar workers,” with particular emphasis on their relationship to “mass culture.” (Reviewing the book, Walter Benjamin praised Kracauer as a “rag-picker” analyzing the detritus of bourgeois culture in advance of the revolution.)

Kracauer’s American revival began in the mid-1990s with the English translation of his Weimar essays, particularly “The Mass Ornament” and “Cult of Distraction”—two journalistic pieces that anticipate Benjamin’s landmark essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” as well as aspects of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry. Kracauer knew them all, in pre-Nazi Germany and in exile, first in France and then the United States. As noted in the introduction to Culture in the Anteroom, a wide-ranging collection of papers given at a 2008 Dartmouth College conference on Kracauer, the film critic and Benjamin spent the latter’s last days together in Marseille waiting for a way out of Vichy France. Unlike Benjamin, Kracauer made it—sailing to New York on the same overcrowded boat that brought Eugen Schüfftan, the cinematographer who shot Metropolis, and his wife Marlise.

Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings gathers together the magazine pieces and reviews that he published (along with a few unpublished writings) in the two decades between his arrival in New York and the publication of Theory of Film. (These are mainly cultural pieces; Kracauer’s writings on propaganda await another volume. One hopes it will include his pithy New Republic article comparing Hitler’s on-screen performances to those of a popular movie star.) Kracauer had been helped in his escape from France by Meyer Shapiro, who praised him as a nonacademic intellectual “saturated with the standards of German scholarship without belonging to one of the professions.”

Settled in New York, Kracauer continued reviewing films as his occupation. He reported on new Hollywood movies, including Citizen Kane, for a Swiss publication; his first English piece, published in The Nation a month before Pearl Harbor, was a sophisticated review of Dumbo, in which he criticized Disney’s tendency to mimic “camera reality”: Kracauer recommended that rather than making faux naturalistic fantasies, Disney should follow Chaplin’s lead in developing “everyday life into fairy tales.” Later, as detailed by Noah Isenberg’s essay in Culture in the Anteroom, Kracauer moved among several worlds, publishing in journals associated with the New York Intellectuals (including Partisan Review, which, among other things, excerpted From Caligari to Hitler, and Commentary, where his none-too-sympathetic editor was Clement Greenberg), working in the Film Study Center at the Museum of Modern Art, analyzing Nazi propaganda for the Rockefeller Foundation, contributing film notes to Cinema 16, and serving as a go-to guy when The New Republic wanted to review a serious film book.

A middle-age émigré, Kracauer evinced a touching desire to reinvent himself as an American. “Why France Liked Our Films,” published in the National Board of Review Magazine less than a year after his arrival, is a valentine to Hollywood. Where French films are static and cramped and “nothing but atmosphere,” American films are “the manifestation of movement and life.” Kracauer extols Mack Sennett, screwball comedy and “the pronounced feeling of American audiences for satire and mockery,” and admires American actresses who embody “a kind of sex appeal unknown in Europe.” The piece ends by observing that, when first encountered, America was already familiar from its movies, adding that he has since come to realize what aspects of American life the movies ignore, to conclude with a heartfelt switch to the personal, noting that “it is no longer a European observer who is making these observations.”

Although already mapping out From Caligari to Hitler and Theory of Film (the former rooted in his Weimar film criticism, the latter conceived during his Parisian exile), Kracauer wrote some shrewd analyses of contemporary American cinema. Published in Commentary in 1946, “Hollywood’s Terror Films: Do They Reflect an American State of Mind?” is an excellent early take on what was yet to be named “film noir.” Not surprisingly, Kracauer recognized the tendency as essentially Germanic: “The weird, veiled insecurity of life under the Nazis is transferred to the American scene. Sinister conspiracies incubate next door, within the world considered normal—any trusted neighbor may turn into a demon.”

Kracauer published the somewhat self-evident “National Types as Hollywood Presents Them” in the Public Opinion Quarterly and parsed the effect of the postwar Red Scare on Hollywood for Harper’s Magazine, explicating The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life and explaining that “liberalism is on the defensive.” He was open to the local avant-garde, writing sympathetically of Maya Deren, Sidney Peterson, James Broughton and the Whitney brothers. Like American critics James Agee and Manny Farber, he regarded Preston Sturges as a major Hollywood director (“a late descendant of Mack Sennett”) and was even more disturbed by his decline: Sturges’s satire is “no longer what it was before he dulled its bite through systematic retreats from any advanced position.” Kracauer may no longer have been a Marxist (if, indeed, he ever was), but he remained a proponent of critical thinking. His politics are implicit in his enthusiasm for Italian neorealism, particularly Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan (“an epic, comparable only to Potemkin”) and his appreciation for the rediscovered Jean Vigo, precursor of the French new wave, whom he praised for his “profound concern with truth.”

It’s striking that Kracauer favorably cites both Paisan and Vigo’s L’Atalante for their episodic structures—a loose series of self-contained events strung like pearls. I’d use similar words to describe From Caligari to Hitler and, especially, Theory of Film. Kracauer was undoubtedly a philosophical thinker. (Prefacing his Theory of Film, Kracauer says he will set cinema in “the perspective of something more general—an approach to the world, a mode of human existence.”) American Writings includes the endearing “Talk With Teddie,” Kracauer’s notes following a 1960 visit with Theodor Adorno and his wife Gretel. According to Friedel (as Kracauer’s German friends called him), he jousted with Adorno over the logic of “Utopian thought” and, invoking Benjamin, told his friend that his vaunted dialectic was like a film consisting “exclusively of close-ups.” (Would that be Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc?)

“You cannot upset Teddie,” Kracauer writes. “He grabs everything he is told, digests it and its consequences and then takes over in a spirit of superiority.” Still, he concludes, “in spite of its emptiness, Teddie’s output appears to be concrete and substantial. This semblance of fullness probably results from his aesthetic sensitivity.” Would it be unkind to make the same observation regarding Kracauer? His work is essentially journalistic—best appreciated as a succession of often brilliant insights rather than a somewhat plodding system, and no less impressive for that. For me, there is nothing that anyone has written on cinema that is more moving than Kracauer’s recollection of the first motion picture he saw, as a young boy in the early twentieth century: “What thrilled me so deeply was an ordinary suburban street, filled with lights and shadows which transfigured it.”

Several trees stood about, and there was in the foreground a puddle reflecting invisible house façades and a piece of the sky. Then a breeze moved the shadows, and the façades with the sky below began to waver. The trembling upper world in the dirty puddle—this image has never left me.

J. Hoberman wrote most recently about Luis Buñuel, a “Charismatic Chameleon.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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