Seven Kracauerian Cinematic-realist (KCR) Tropes

by Jose Gutierrez III

Seven tropes from the realist film theory of Siegfried Kracauer are presented in this essay. Selected works from world cinema re used to illustrate the discussion.

Note: This is an excerpt from my PhD dissertation, ‘Investigating Kracauerian Cinematic Realism through Film Practice and Criticism: Life-world Series (2017) and Selected Films of Lino Brocka’ (2018), which is available for download via this link.

Three ‘objects’ (Kracauer, 1960, p. 53) are offered by Kracauer’s ‘cinematic realism of everyday life’ (Hansen, 1997, p. ix), namely, the quotidian and – among the ‘things normally unseen’ (Kracauer, 1960, p. 46) – the transient and the refuse.

The quotidian

Kracauer was a ‘phenomenological observer of the local, the ephemeral, the everyday’ (Petro, 1991, p. 131). He made ‘good use of his Sunday afternoon excursions’, ‘whether chatting on a Berlin train or going for a walk in the park’ (Gilloch, 2015, p. 173). The quotidian, the French term for ‘the everyday’, is one of the key elements of Kracauerian cinematic realism, which is largely an ‘exploration of the thicket of everyday life’ (Sieg, 2010, p. 106). Kracauer’s emphasis on the quotidian belongs to a ‘larger tradition, related in turn to the philosophical program of “the readability of the world”’ (Hansen, 1992, p. 63). Kracauer believed that the ‘cinematic film’ (1960, p. 72) – defined by its propensity to ‘penetrate the external world’ (p. 191) – must be traced to its creator’s capacity for ‘reading the book of nature’ (1960, p. 302) and that ‘the film artist has traits of an imaginative reader or an explorer prodded by insatiable curiosity’ (p. 302). For Kracauer, surface phenomena have an ‘unconscious’ (Sieg, 2010, p. 105) quality, that is, they are liberated from conscious ideological censorship that can distort, displace, or condense (p. 105) the experience of reality. This offers a road to the redemptive potential of film since ‘intuitive awareness of the authentic quotidian character of experience of the Lebenswelt, of the phenomenal world’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 16) can lead the film spectator to develop insight into ‘what a superior comportment of the individual within the Lebenswelt might consist of’ (p. 16).

People on Sunday (1930); Boat Leaving the Port (1895); Pickpocket (1959); Intolerance: Love’s Struggle throughout the Ages (1916); Modern Times (1936)
Figure 12. People on Sunday (1930); Boat Leaving the Port (1895); Pickpocket (1959); Intolerance: Love’s Struggle throughout the Ages (1916); Modern Times (1936)

The significance that ‘Kracauer ascribes to the quotidian derives directly from his understanding of modernity’ (Sieg, 2010, p. 110) and the ‘modernization of everyday life’ (Mülder-Bach, 1997, p. 44). Kracauer’s focus on the quotidian’s operational logic invites the experiencing individual to ‘read’ the ‘ornaments of the ordinary’ (Sieg, 2010, p. 103) and to elucidate the ‘inconspicuous affairs of the everyday’ (Gilloch, 2015, p. 174). This addresses Kracauer’s account of the effects that the prevailing abstraction in the modern condition has for the modern subject; Kracauer posited, ‘Strange as it may seem, although streets, faces, railway stations, etc., lie before our eyes, they have remained largely invisible so far. Why is this so?’ (1960, p. 299). For Kracauer, owing to the camera’s photographic capacity that reintroduces us to things-in-themselves, ‘we enjoy motion pictures because of the way they heighten our consciousness of the everyday’ (Armstrong, 2007, p. 65). People on Sunday/Menschen am Sonntag (Robert Siodmak & Edgar G. Ulmer, 1930) illustrates the quotidian in a scene (Fig. 12a) that situates the main characters – the man and woman facing each other – amidst the busy street on a normal day in Berlin.

The transient

Aside from affirming film’s capacity to render the quotidian visible, Kracauer pushes further to emphasise film’s power to record and reveal the things normally unseen, particularly ‘the transient’ (1960, p. 52) where ‘fleeting impressions’ (p. 52) belong. These evanescent impressions – ‘like dream elements’ (p. 52) – can be so powerful that they ‘may haunt the moviegoer long after the story they are called upon to implement has sunk into oblivion’ (p. 52). The photographically-based medium is specifically gifted to render and thus preserve ‘all those transient things which are entitled to a place in the “archives of our memory’” (Benjamin, 1939, p. 82) qtd. in (Kracauer, 1960, p. 21). The motion picture camera ‘seems to be partial to the least permanent components of our environment’ (Kracauer, 1960, p. 52); thus, ‘it may be anticipated that the street in the broadest sense of the word is a place where impressions of this kind are bound to occur’ (p. 52). Kracauer defined the ‘street’ to cover not only the street, particularly the city street, in the literal sense, but also its various extensions, such as railway stations, dance and assembly halls, bars, hotel lobbies, airports, etc.’ (p. 62). Indeed, Kracauerian cinematic realism is keen on cinematic renditions of the ‘street’ – ‘a center of fleeting impressions’ (p. 62) – because of these transient elements at play. Boat Leaving the Port/Barque sortant du port (Louis Lumière, 1895) exhibits the transient nature of the elements in the actual footage [Fig. 12b] that was caught by the camera.

The refuse

Like the transient, Kracauer identified ‘the refuse’ (1960, p. 53) as a type of object that is cinematic because it stubbornly escapes our attention in everyday life (p. 53). Kracauer stated that these objects remain unnoticed ‘simply because it never occurs to us to look their way . . . Most people turn their backs on garbage cans, the dirt underfoot, the waste they leave behind’ (p. 54). The medium specificity of film offers a redemption from this complex, for ‘films have no such inhibitions; on the contrary, what we ordinarily prefer to ignore proves attractive to them precisely because of this common neglect’ (p. 54). By portraying ‘the refuse’, films can reveal new aspects of our everyday environment (Armstrong, 2007, p. 55), making it seem ‘unfamiliar and interesting’ (p. 65). Since the camera is able to represent ‘the refuse’ without distortion (Kracauer, 1960, p. 57), cinema ‘aims at transforming the agitated witness into a conscious observer’ (p. 58). Indeed, for Kracauer, a redemptive possibility for cinema within the modern condition is that it ‘keeps us from shutting our eyes to the “blind drive of things” (Laffay, 1948, p. 13)’ (Kracauer, 1960, p. 58).  Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959) portrays the refuse in the form of an imprisoned man (Fig. 12c) who, as a punishment for his crime, is denied physical access to society.

The next three KCR tropes come from the film medium’s basic affinity for representing ‘aspects of reality’ (Aitken, 2001, p. 175) such as the fortuitous, the indeterminate, and the ‘flow of life’ (Kracauer, 1960, p. 71) (Aitken, 2001, p. 175).

The fortuitous

Kracauer declared that since ‘photography survives in film, film must share the same affinities’ (1960, p. 60). Through its ‘concern with unstaged reality’ (p. 19), photography tends to stress ‘the fortuitous’ (p. 19), which is ‘characteristic of camera-reality’ (p. 62) and entails the existence of ‘haphazard contingencies’ (p. 62). This accounts for the ‘attractiveness of street crowds’ (p. 19) that, when filmed by the motion picture camera, reveal themselves as a constellation of random events that are ‘the very meat of snapshots’ (p. 19). The street – in the extended sense of the word, ‘an arena of chance encounters’ (p. 72) – is of interest as a region where ‘the accidental prevails over the providential, and happenings in the nature of unexpected incidents are all but the rule’ (p. 62). Cinematic renditions of the street are ‘pictorial records of chance meetings, strange overlappings, and fabulous coincidences’ (p. 19). Intolerance: Love’s Struggle throughout the Ages (D.W. Griffith, 1916) and Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, 1936) exemplify the fortuitous in the last-minute save scene (Fig. 12d) and the character’s accidental taking in a psychoactive substance that serendipitously led to his parole (Fig. 12e).

The indeterminate

Kracauerian cinematic realism emphasises the ‘indeterminate nature of both reality and representation’ (Aitken, 2001, p. 173). As an ‘extension of photography’ (Kracauer, 1960, p. 68), film shares photography’s ‘concern for nature in the raw’ (p. 68); thus, they both share the affinity for the indeterminate (p. 20). A photograph and a film shot are both necessarily indeterminate because they are ‘bound to convey unshaped nature itself, nature in its inscrutability’ (p. 20). The photographic medium is attracted to a material reality that is ‘relatively unstructured and, hence, indeterminate as to meaning’ (p. 68); by contrast, in traditional works of art such as paintings and sculptures – fashioned at will by the artist using predetermined materials – ‘inherent meanings can virtually be ascertained’ (p. 20).

Tropical Malady (2004); Man with a Movie Camera (1929); Yellow Earth (1984); Umberto D. (1952)
Figure 13. Tropical Malady (2004); Man with a Movie Camera (1929); Yellow Earth (1984); Umberto D. (1952)

In films, shots that exhibit ‘free-hovering images of material reality’ (p. 71) – ‘notwithstanding their latent or ultimately even manifest bearing on the narrative to which they belong’ (p. 71) – may also ‘allude to contexts unrelated to the events which they are called upon to establish’ (p. 71) and thus ‘appear in their suggestive indeterminacy’ (p. 71). If a film strives ‘to give signification a degree of ambiguity’ in this manner, it is endorsed by Kracauer, because the cinematic quality of the resulting shots ‘lies precisely in their allusiveness, which enables them to yield all their psychological correspondences’ (p. 71). Because of their indeterminate nature, ‘film shots are particularly fit to function as an ignition spark’ (p. 165); that is, these indeterminate shots may induce ‘chain reactions in the movie-goer – a flight of associations which no longer revolve around their original source arise from his agitated inner environment’ (p. 165). These indeterminate shots function as physical clues that ‘preserve their indeterminacy’ (p. 279); they seem to be ‘elements of a sustained inquiry rather than components of a narrative with preconceived patterns of meanings and an ideological center’ (p. 279). Tropical Malady/Sud pralad (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004) embodies the indeterminate in a shot (Fig. 13a) that frames the moon in the background vis-à-vis the silhouette of tree branches in the foreground.

The flow of life

The ultimate affinity that Kracauer examined in Theory of Film, ‘flow of life’ (Kracauer, 1960, p. 60) is ‘peculiar to film alone, since photography cannot picture life in motion’ (p. 60). For Kracauer, the ‘cinematic film’ (1960, p. 72) – characterised earlier in this chapter by its proclivity to ‘penetrate the external world’ (p. 191) – evokes a reality that points beyond the physical world (p. 72). The ‘stream of material situations and happenings’ (p. 72) rendered by the cinematic film ignites for the film spectator a ‘continuous influx of the psychophysical correspondences’ (p. 72); thus, suggesting ‘a reality which may fittingly be called “life”’ (p. 72). This continuum of life or the ‘flow of life’ (p. 72) – which is ‘identical with open-ended life’ (p. 72) – is ‘predominantly a material rather than a mental continuum, even though, by definition, it extends into the mental dimension’ (p. 72) that intimates the thoughts and emotions of the film spectator (p. 72). As with the previously identified film affinity for ‘the fortuitous’ and ‘the transient’ as cinematic object, ‘the street’ (p. 72) is significant in terms of film’s affinity for ‘the flow of life’, since the former is a ‘place where the flow of life is bound to assert itself’ (p. 72). Kracauer affirmed that the film medium’s ‘affinity for the flow of life would be enough to explain the attraction which the street has ever since exerted on the screen’ (p. 72). Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929) and Yellow Earth/Huang tu di (Chen Kaige, 1984) illustrate the flow of life, respectively, in the fluidly superimposed montage of an extensive range of activities in Soviet cities (Fig. 13b) and a lunch scene in a Chinese countryside, involving a small family and a guest (13c).

The spiritual life itself

The ultimate PRF characteristic (flowing) and KCR trope (the flow of life) just discussed in this chapter both point towards the Husserlian notion of the Lebenswelt, as mentioned earlier, which Aitken (2006) identified as a ‘key to understanding Kracauer’s assertion that “physical reality” can be redeemed through cinema’ (Wils, 2016, p. 76). The film medium promotes the redemption of physical reality by ‘gathering and carrying along the material world in all its fragments and elements’ (Hansen, 1993, p. 448). This idea of redemption, however, is neither religious nor mystical; Aitken (2016) explained that ‘nothing mystical is involved here, and what is being referred to is a concrete sense of being in the world: a sense of grasping the authentic – and therefore realistic – character of our place within a Lebenswelt which is also ineluctably linked to external reality’ (p. 16). Here, the Lebenswelt is laden with meaning for experiencing beings who confer ‘spiritual’ (Russell, 2006, p. 195) meaning on it; that is, ‘the world is for us first a world of valuable and useful objects, not “mere things”’ (p. 195). Kracauer’s answer to the question that he posed towards the end of Theory of Film in a section entitled ‘The Family of Man’ – ‘And what about the spiritual life itself?’ (1960, p. 309) – was also not a mystical one; instead, it was fully from a phenomenological perspective: Kracauer argued that the film medium, due to its ability to enkindle for the film spectator ‘the experience of a large number and multiplicity of sense perceptions’ (Aitken, 2006, p. 166), can induce ‘some kind of qualitative transformation which occurs within the individual observer as a consequence of undergoing such an experience’ (p. 166). The cinematic film’s phenomenological engagement with the concrete and richly-complex immediate experience (Aitken, 2001, p. 178) possesses the ability ‘to provide us with renewed access to both phenomenal reality and the “spiritual life itself”’ (2006, p. 166). Kracauer’s idea of the spiritual life itself is ‘a mode of being characterised by revelatory insight, of a secular rather than religious tenor’ (Aitken, 2006, p. 166); when cinematically engaged, this can lead us, the film spectators, to connect to an ‘insightful experience of our existential situation’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 16). Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica, 1952), Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955), Aparajito (Satyajit Ray, 1956) manifest the spiritual life itself, respectively, in: a transformative moment that prevents the old man’s suicide attempt (Fig. 13d); sister and brother caught in the rain, prompting the former to recite an invocation to help ease it (14a); and the mother yearning for her son’s return (14b).

Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956)
Figure 14. Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956)

To end this section, let me use an excerpt from Kracauer’s writing, on the very last page of Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960) regarding a scene in Aparajito (1956); it comes from under Kracauer’s final subheading in Theory of Film (1960), ‘The Family of Man’ (p. 309), where he avows the cinematic proposition ‘for reflecting and endorsing the actual rapprochement between the peoples of the world’ (p. 310). Kracauer described the said scene (see Fig. 14b):

The camera focuses on the ornamental bark of an old tree and then slowly tilts down to the face of Apu’s sick mother who yearns for her son in the big city. In the distance a train is passing by. The mother walks heavily back to the house where she imagines she hears Apu shout “Ma.” Is he returning to her? She gets up and looks into the empty night aglow with water reflections and dancing will-o’-the-wisps. India is in this episode but not only India.

(Kracauer, 1960, p. 311)


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