Siegfried Kracauer, Realist Film Theorist

by Jose Gutierrez III

Siegfried Kracauer was ‘as much a social scientist as a film theorist’ (Armstrong, 2007, p. 62). This is evident not just in Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Kracauer, 1960) but also in his (1) articles and reviews as a ‘practical film critic of the Frankfurter Zeitung’ (Petro, 1991, p. 131) of the 1920s and early 1930s; (2) in his book on ‘film sociology’ (Elsaesser, 1987, p. 67), From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological Study of the German Film (Kracauer, 1947); and (3) in History, The Last Things before the Last (1969).

Note: These are excerpts 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 from the institutional repository.

Abstraction, Distraction, and Phenomenology

Kracauer’s Theory of Film (1960) is considered to be ‘relatively scientific in its categories and distinctions’ (Armstrong, 2007, p. 62) and is regarded as ‘his most sustained and systematic attempt to explore’ (Gilloch, 2015, p. 173) the cinematic medium’s ‘essential properties and possibilities’ (p. 173). Chapter 1 is tasked with fleshing out Kracauer’s notions on cinematic realism in Theory of Film (1960); in the current section, let us consider the intellectual background of Kracauerian cinematic realism (KCR) through various Kracauerian scholars’ inquiry into his earlier writings, specifically regarding (1) abstraction and distraction and (2) the affinity between phenomenology – especially its notion of the Lebenswelt – and Kracauerian thought.

Kracauer observed that the domination ‘by systems of technical and conceptual rationality’ (Aitken, 2006, p. 154) within the modern condition produces a prevailing state wherein the ‘immediate experience of the physical environment as a possible object of contemplation for the modern subject has become sharply abridged, and therefore more “abstract” (Kracauer, 1960, pp. 291-7)’ (p. 154). Within the modern condition, Kracauer defined the resultant abstraction as an ‘attitude toward reality’ (p. 292) conditioned by how sciences deal with ordinary experience by abstracting from them certain elements then process them in various ways (p. 292), thus, ‘stripping the objects of the qualities that give them “all their poignancy and preciousness” (Dewey, 1934, p. 338)’ (Kracauer, 1960, p. 292). Within the modern condition, objects are ‘understood in terms of particular abstractions as products or tools with their essence tantamount to their function’ (Kracauer, 1960, p. 292) as their physical nature is persistently enveloped by ideologies (p. 299). The dominant rationality uses these ideologies, which are salient forms of abstractions, to create an illusion of wholeness in modern life. For Kracauer, abstraction deals with ‘the actual state of disintegration’ (Kracauer, 1987, p. 95) by gluing the shreds back together and presenting them as ‘organic creations’ (p. 95). A product of this prevailing abstraction is distraction (Aitken, 2001, p. 170), which is a form of culture – manifested in films, advertisements, the circus, the streets, etc. (Elsaesser, 1987, p. 68) – that ‘attempts to remake reality in the image of the mass ornament’ (Frisby, 1986, p. 148). For Kracauer, ‘the modern subject’s state of distraction’ (Hansen, 1992, p. 64), which leads to a ‘sterile encounter between the self and the world’ (Aitken, 2001, p. 169), is caused by the ‘reification in the modern condition’ (Hansen, 1992, p. 64) as manifested in mass ornaments such as films; eventually, however, distraction – ‘originally a negative term’ (Aitken, 2001, p. 169) since it was deemed as too lowbrow to produce opportunities for contemplation that was usually ‘associated with the high arts’ (p. 169) – was recognised by Kracauer as an alternative to ‘totalising systems of rationality’ (p. 170) especially because it is associated with the experience of the common, everyday person (p. 170) whose senses are sharpened ‘for an antagonistic reality’ (Schlüpmann, 1987, p. 102). Kracauer asserted that film is important as a means to observe the disintegrative tendencies of the modern condition (Eksteins, 1997, p. 611) while other elements of popular culture, like ‘theatrical revues, travel, dance, photography, best-selling literature, and even urban arcades and hotel lobbies’ (p. 611) were also of interest to him (p. 611); together, these mass entertainments reveal ‘the superficiality and triviality of modern endeavour’ (p. 611). Kracauer emphasised that these mass ornaments deserved ‘attention and should be defended against critics, since they exhibit a greater “degree of reality” (Kracauer, 1995, p. 79) than traditional art forms’ (Sieg, 2010, p. 112).

One of the main features of the realist film theory of Kracauer is his assertion that within the modern condition, film form and spectatorship ‘correspond to the “damaged condition of modernity”’ (Aitken, 2006, p. 166); it is ‘in this sense, and not in any naïve realist sense, that Kracauer understands film to be “realistic”’ (p. 166). Kracauer observed that ‘film comments on the disintegrated elements of the material world’ (Hansen, 1993, p. 457), and has the potential to foster a redemptive state for the spectators as they contemplate how the ‘fragments reconfigure themselves, perhaps into something new’ (1992, p. 64) amidst the modern condition. Kracauer declared that cinema has the capability to penetrate physical reality that operates at the base of life that is beyond the humanistic abstractions espoused by the dominant ideology as “film looks under the table” [Marseille notebooks, Kracauer Papers, 1:5] – for which Kracauer uses the shorthand dégonflage’ (Hansen, 1993, p. 450). Kracauer drew on his notion of distraction ‘to support what appears to be a realist form of filmmaking’ (Elsaesser, 1987, p. 67) which avows that ‘redemption could be achieved through a re-engagement with physical reality’ (Aitken, 2001, p. 171). Kracauer’s ‘emphasis on the flow of life and the contingent detail suggests that sense in which we enjoy motion pictures because of the way they heighten our consciousness of the everyday, making it seem unfamiliar and interesting’ (Armstrong, 2007, p. 65) as ‘the cinema’s photographic capacity reintroduces us to things in themselves’ (p. 65). Kracauer argued that ‘popular film is capable of enhancing our faculties, heightening our sensitivity and receptivity, and restoring our aesthetic appreciation of the world around us’ (Gilloch, 2015, p. 178); indeed, he noted that ‘historical and sociological investigations should not seek hidden truths but recognize what is always already in the open’ (Sieg, 2010, p. 104). As his film reviews and writings in the 1920s and early 1930s demonstrate, Kracauer read the ‘ephemeral, unnoticed and culturally marginalized phenomena of everyday life as configurations of writing, resorting to scriptural figures such as “hieroglyph,” “ornament,” “rebus,” or “arabesque”’ (Hansen, 1992, p. 63); this implies that ‘Kracauer belongs to a larger tradition, related in turn to the philosophical program of “the readability of the world”’ (p. 63).

The strength of Kracauer’s writings in the 1920s was their phenomenological procedure of letting everyday life manifest itself first, then eventually reflecting on them (Schlüpmann, 1987, p. 98). Husserl’s ‘lasting influence on Kracauer’ (Witte, Correll, & Zipes, 1975, p. 63) – the latter drawing on the former’s notion of the Lebenswelt in developing his theory of cinematic realism (Aitken, 2001, p. 173) – is evident here, especially along the lines of ‘phenomenology (“surface”) and in vitalistic philosophy (Lebensphilosophie, “flux of life”)’ (Witte, Correll, & Zipes, 1975, p. 63). Kracauer declared that ‘film is a privileged medium’ (Aitken, 2001, p. 178) – which is ‘generated by the state of the Lebenswelt within modernity’ (p. 178) – because it is ‘uniquely equipped to redeem this base of life for the modern subject’ (p. 178). This entails, in terms of practice, that films must be ‘so constructed as to replicate the damaged condition of the Lebenswelt within modernity, and this led Kracauer to endorse a type of cinema which is indeterminate in character, and which possesses “affinities” with such aspects of the Lebenswelt as “unstaged reality,” “chance,” “the fortuitous,” “the indeterminate,” the “flow of life” and “endlessness”’ (Aitken, 2006, p. 166); such a ‘model of cinematic realism led Kracauer to support forms of avant-garde film-making which deploy the impressionistic style’ (p. 166). For Kracauer, ‘the basic principles and affinities of film equated structurally with those underlying the Lebenswelt’ (Aitken, 2001, p. 174). This ‘postulation of a structural homological relationship between film and the Lebenswelt provides one of the foundations of Kracauer’s theory of cinematic realism, and also makes it clear that this theory was not based on naïve realist premises’ (Aitken, 2001, p. 174). The affinity between phenomenology and KCR is evident here; indeed Kracauer’s ‘theory of cinematic realism is best described as a form of phenomenological realism which, like the Kantian aesthetics and Husserlian phenomenology from which it is derived, seeks a basis of knowledge and representation through close observation of the material world’ (Aitken, 2001, p. 178) – Kracauer elucidated:

Both the farmer and the engineer know something about the importance of seemingly unimportant details. Many small factors, they know, must work together to ripen the corn or to make a complicated machine function. Their experience teaches them to distrust the pretensions of pure ideas while at the same time they find in little things more than just little things. Such an outlook proves helpful, too, in the field of humanities where any survey interested solely in the display of ideas runs the risk of missing the ideas’ very significance.

(Kracauer, 1996, p. 16) qtd. in (Gemünden & Moltke, 2012, pp. 1-2)

Husserl argued that abstraction threatens to block out the ‘subjective meanings generated within experience’ (Aitken, 2001, p. 173) of ‘the phenomenal world’ (2016, p. 16) or the Lebenswelt’ which is ‘the world in which we live intuitively’ (Husserl, 1970, p. 139). In line with this, Husserl declared that the modern subject, in the journey towards self-actualisation, ‘must regain contact with this lost, and repressed, realm of existence’ (p. 173). Indeed, the bond between phenomenology and KCR is expressed in that objective of the modern subject to reconnect with the Lebenswelt, which holds the ‘key to understanding Kracauer’s assertion that “physical reality” can be redeemed through cinema’ (Wils, 2016, p. 76).

The Realist Film Theory of Siegfried Kracauer

The writings of Kracauer can be divided into two halves, i.e., the ‘two Kracauers’ (Petro, 1991, p. 131). The early Kracauer of the 1920s to the 1930s was a practical film critic of the Frankfurter Zeitung where he was a ‘phenomenological observer of the local, the ephemeral, the everyday’ (p. 131). During this period, Kracauer wrote ‘Cult of Distraction: On Berlin’s Picture Palaces’ (1987) and ‘The Mass Ornament’ (1995). These essays were ‘ethnologically inflected observations of ordinary practices’ (Sieg, 2010, p. 100) – contributing to a ‘theory of the ordinary’ (p. 100) – which anticipated ‘methodologically crucial aspects of what we have come to call cultural studies’ (p. 100). The late Kracauer, on the other hand, was a ‘massive system-builder and conceptual thinker’ (Petro, 1991, p. 131) in From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological Study of the German Film (1947) and Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960) (Petro, 1991, p. 131). It has also been noted, however, especially by recent scholarship on Kracauer’s realist film theory that a significant level of continuity is evident in the two periods. To illustrate, the ‘play of surface in and through its representations’ (Petro, 1991, p. 137) is a clear motif in both ‘The Mass Ornament’ (popular culture and media) and Theory of Film (cinema); furthermore, the implications of the cherished Weimar themes, e.g., growing calculation, rationalisation, mechanisation, estrangement, etc. (Koss, 1996, p. 83) that are replete in the early work are evidently the basis of the later works’ formulations on the modern condition, and ultimately, the redemptive potential of the film medium.

Kracauer has been distinguished among the first generation of Critical Theorists – which includes Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, Eric Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, and Friedrich Pollock – as ‘the only one who had significant expertise in matters of cinema’ (Hansen, 2012, p. 3). His contribution, however has not been appreciated fully since in the first place, German cultural theory, ‘in the form of Frankfurt School critical sociology, has tended to marginalize the cinema’ (Elsaesser, 1987, p. 66). What contributed to this was Kracauer’s breaking away from the Marxist paradigm and consideration of ‘the ornaments of the masses not as products of the culture industry but as phenomena capable of revealing social experiences that otherwise would remain hidden’ (Sieg, 2010, pp. 111).

To understand the location of Kracauerian cinematic realism in film scholarship, we need to trace the path that realist film theory has taken in the history of the discipline. In the 1920s to the late 1950s, the realist-intuitionist paradigm dominated European film theory (Aitken, 2001, p. 162). In the 1950s to the 1960s, when institutional places for Film Studies had not been established yet, ‘both Caligari and Theory of Film failed to find a wide or appreciative audience’ (Petro, 1991, p. 135). When academic film study was finally institutionalised in the 1960s to the 1970s, the preponderance of post-structuralism and political modernism in the body of film theory drove realist film theory to the ‘margins of critical consideration’ (Aitken, 2001, p. 162) so Kracauer’s books became even ‘further marginalized and unreadable, antithetical as they were to the reigning critical orthodoxies of auteurism, structuralism, and antirealist film theory’ (Petro, 1991, p. 135). In the 1980s to the 1990s, realism had all but disappeared from theoretical discussion and was ‘replaced by skirmishes over the distinction between modernism and postmodernism’ (Rothberg, 2000, p. 8). While Kracauer has been ‘neglected since the 1960s when structuralism cast a sceptical eye on film’s photographic mission, interest in his work is growing’ (Armstrong, 2007, p. 63). In 1991, the influential scholarly journal, New German Critique, published its ‘Special Issue on Siegfried Kracauer’ who may be less well known than André Bazin, ‘film theory’s arch champion of realism’ (Armstrong, 2007, p. 62), but the former’s ‘emphasis on film’s ability to capture real experience identifies important bonds between films, their record of modern life and the role of the spectator’ (p. 62).

Kracauer’s realist film theory, set against the backdrop of the modern condition which is dominated ‘by systems of technical and conceptual rationality’ (Aitken, 2006, p. 154), has for its major theme the constant tension between immediate experience and conceptual rationality. As instrumental discourses pervade the modern condition, the essence of objects become ‘tantamount to their function’ (Kracauer 1960, p. 292). The predominating abstraction within the modern condition produces a state wherein ‘physical nature has been persistently veiled by ideologies’ (p. 299). As early as in the ‘Mass Ornament’, Kracauer asserted that ‘hidden truths’ (Sieg, 2010, p. 104) such as these are always already out in the open, but we often fail to recognise them not because their appearances are deceptive (p. 104) but because the public has internalised the dominant ideologies that are circulated by the ideological state apparatuses such as the school, church, media, etc., as they go about the business of modern life. Indeed, the realist film theory of Kracauer is fundamentally a theory of cinema and the modern condition. For him, ‘the true subject matter of film is the modern itself’ (Gilloch, 2015, p. 175) and that ‘the film-maker has inherited the mantle of the “painter of modern life”’ (p. 175). Kracauer’s main assertion in Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960) is that the medium has the potential to save the modern subjects from the insidious pull of conceptual and instrumental rationality and, in turn, lead them to reclaim their immediate experience of the life-world. By gravitating towards physical reality – ‘the things themselves’ (Russell, 2006, p. 18; Kracauer, 1960, p. 170) in Husserlian terms – realist cinema can affirm for the spectators that their actual lived experiences are valid, regardless of how abstracting discourses discount them as mere statistical data or any other form of instrumental conceptualisation. For Kracauer, the key to film’s potential to redeem the modern subject from the power of abstractions is having physical reality as an object of contemplation. The following passage gives us a sense of how Kracauer construes this contemplative process:

Yet the spectator cannot hope to apprehend, however incompletely, the being of any object that draws him into its orbit unless he meanders, dreamingly, through the maze of its multiple meanings and psychological correspondences. Material existence, as it manifests itself in film, launches the moviegoer into unending pursuits.

(Kracauer, 1960, p. 165)

Early on in Theory of Film, Kracauer discussed the ‘basic aesthetic principle’ (1960, p. 13) in terms of photography, which ‘remains the decisive factor in establishing film content’ (p. 27). Since the film medium is photographic by default, ‘the nature of photography survives in that of film’ (p. 27). The current discussion on KCR also continues with the basic aesthetic principle of the ‘realistic tendency’ (p. 13) which applies to photography and holds ‘true of the cinematic medium’ (p. 28). Kracauer avowed that each medium has a specific nature (1960, p. 3) and affirmed that ‘films may claim aesthetic validity if they build from their basic properties; like photographs, that is, they must record and reveal physical reality’ (p. 37). Films follow the ‘cinematic approach’ (Kracauer, 1960, p. 39) if they ‘acknowledge the realistic tendency by concentrating on actual physical existence’ (p. 60). For Kracauer, a ‘cinematic’ (1960, p. 61) film is ‘devoted to camera-reality’ (p. 61); on the other hand, a film is ‘uncinematic if it passes over the basic properties of the medium’ (p. 60) that has a ‘primordial concern for actuality’ (p. 72). To introduce the notion of the realistic tendency, Kracauer initially set it against an apparent binary opposite, ‘the formalist tendency as manifested in the high-cultured theatre films’ (Rheindorf, 2005, p. 165) and Soviet montage principle that for him were ideologically contaminated manipulations of physical reality (p. 165). Since the film medium supposedly fulfils itself by capturing ‘nature in the raw’ (Kracauer, 1960, p. 68), he considered the above as ‘formalist “perversions” on the unchecked use of “film language”’ (Rheindorf, 2005, p. 165). Kracauer deemed the mainstream theatrical films as uncinematic because they ‘intrude upon or displace the primacy of the realistic tendency’ (Gilloch, 2015, p. 175). On the one hand, this is attributed to their infelicitous attempts to film inappropriate subjects – theatrical plays, operas, novels, tragedy (p. 175). On the other hand, the protagonist’s perspective, decisions and actions drive the theatrical story and thus ‘limits the appropriate use of a medium which does not differentiate between humans and inanimate objects’ (Kracauer, 1960, p. 218). It is not surprising for Kracauer to reject ideologically-driven montage because ideology contributes to the ‘prevailing abstractness’ (1960, p. 301), which he defined as ‘the abstract manner in which people of all walks of life perceive the world and themselves’ (p. 291). This ‘abstractness’ (p. 296) is the very thing that Kracauer, in the conclusion of Theory of Film, asks us to first rid ourselves of as best we can (p. 296) in order for the ‘redemption of physical reality’ (p. 300) to be fulfilled.

The foregoing point about the binary opposition – realistic and formative tendencies – is set out here in extreme oppositional terms in order to mark up the distinction. In fact, however, Kracauer believed that these tendencies are neither necessarily in conflict with nor mutually exclusive of each other. Kracauer affirmed, that everything depends on the ‘right’ balance between the realistic tendency and the formative tendency (1960, p. 39). He, however, further qualified the relationship by declaring that these two are well-balanced if the formalist tendency ‘does not try to overwhelm’ (p. 39) the realist tendency ‘but eventually follows its lead’ (p. 39). Kracauer declared that in the filmmaker’s practice of his art, he may express his formative energies ‘in all the dimensions which the medium has come to cover’ (1960, p. 39), including impressionistic renditions of physical existence in documentaries, cinematic visualizations of mental images, altered states of consciousness, rhythmical patterns, etc. (p. 39). Crucially, Kracauer stated that all these creative efforts are in keeping with the cinematic approach so long as they ‘benefit, in some way or another, the medium’s substantive concern with the visible world’ (1960, p. 39). He explained the dynamics between the realist and formalist tendencies. Intuitively knowing the specificity of the photographically-based medium, the film-maker externalizes his or her ‘inner images’ (Kracauer, 1960, p. 17) by using the camera to capture ‘outer shapes’ (p. 17) from physical reality that correspond to his or her formative energies as an artist as he or she ‘relies on occasional coincidences between those shapes and images’ (p. 17). Maya Deren’s A Study in Choreography for Camera (1946), for example, works on the basis of these ‘occasional coincidences’ (p. 17) between her inner images as a film-maker and outer shapes captured by the camera from the physical setting where she chose to shoot the scene in Figure 9a. With its move to ‘penetrate the external world’ (p. 191), this film by Deren is, in Kracauerian terminology, a ‘cinematic film’ (p. 72).

This privileging of the ‘cinematic approach’ of the film medium is not a ‘dogmatic insistence upon “realism” in film’ (Gilloch, 2015, p. 175) in a naïve sense. The primacy of the realist tendency in Kracauerian cinematic realism draws on larger philosophical dimensions, particularly in terms of the Husserlian notion of the Lebenswelt, which Aitken (2006) precisely emphasised as a ‘key to understanding Kracauer’s assertion that “physical reality” can be redeemed through cinema’ (Wils, 2016, p. 76). This sort of phenomenological attitude inherent in Kracauerian cinematic realism makes it belong to the ‘phenomenalist-realist’ (Aitken, 2016, p. 34) tradition of film theory.


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