The Curious Humanist: Siegfried Kracauer in America

The Curious Humanist: Siegfried Kracauer in America

by Johannes von Moltke

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During the Weimar Republic, Siegfried Kracauer established himself as a trenchant theorist of film, culture, and modernity, and he is now considered one of the key thinkers of the twentieth century. When he arrived in Manhattan aboard a crowded refugee ship in 1941, however, he was virtually unknown in the United States and had yet to write his best-known books, From Caligari to Hitler and Theory of Film. Johannes von Moltke details the intricate ways in which the American intellectual and political context shaped Kracauer’s seminal contributions to film studies and shows how, in turn, Kracauer’s American writings helped shape the emergent discipline. Using archival sources and detailed readings, von Moltke asks what it means to consider Kracauer as the New York Intellectual he became in the last quarter century of his life. Adopting a transatlantic perspective on Kracauer’s work, von Moltke demonstrates how he pursued questions in conversation with contemporary critics from Theodor Adorno to Hannah Arendt, from Clement Greenberg to Robert Warshow: questions about the origins of totalitarianism and the authoritarian personality; about high and low culture; about liberalism, democracy, and what it means to be human. From these wide-flung debates, Kracauer’s own voice emerges as that of an incisive cultural critic invested in a humanist understanding of the cinema. 

Editorial Reviews


"Von Moltke places Kracauer in dialogue with other exiles—such as Hannah Arendt and theorists of the Frankfurt School—and with New York intellectuals such as Robert Warshow to shed light on Kracauer’s fundamental humanism. Clearly written, accessible to a wide readership, and including a comprehensive bibliography, this book provides an excellent overview of Kracauer’s thought and contributions to the development of humanistic inquiry."

Film Quarterly

"The Curious Humanist: Siegfried Kracauer in America constitutes an important step in the exploration of the relations between intellectual development and migration. It constitutes an important addition to the scholarship of Kracauer and the American intellectual sphere at midcentury."


"[Moltke] argues in defense of Kracauer’s writing in America and in English against the mild skepticism it met with from those who found him a better writer in Europe and in German. Setting up this resistance to the “classic figure of the intellectual in exile” (6), he sets out to show how adeptly Kracauer found his feet with a new audience on a new stage."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520290945
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/21/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Curious Humanist

Siegfried Kracauer in America

By Johannes von Moltke


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96485-3


Metropolitan Contact Zones

Kracauer in New York

The newcomer establishes himself in America, and soon his contacts with the customs of this country are too intimate to permit dispassioned reflections about American Life.

SIEGFRIED KRACAUER, "Why France Liked Our Films" (1941)


In November 1941, barely six months after disembarking from the Nyassa, Siegfried Kracauer published his first piece of film criticism in English. To those who know him only as the author of From Caligari to Hitler and Theory of Film (but surely not to anyone familiar with his promiscuous, almost daily criticism for the Frankfurter Zeitung during the 1920s), it may come as a surprise to learn that Kracauer's American debut in the pages of the Nation took aim at Walt Disney's Dumbo, released two weeks prior to publication of the review. How might this piece of Americana, a film about a flying elephant which Kracauer described as a "charming picture filled with marvelously conceived episodes," fit with the weighty concerns of the film theorist? Indeed, how does a discussion of animation square with Kracauer's better-known works on cinema as a symptom of Weimar Germany's failure, and on the relation between film and reality?

As we shall see, Kracauer would eventually take an interest precisely in the symptomatic function of Disney's films. And even in this discussion of Dumbo, he zooms in on the nature of the film medium and the question of realism. Attentive to detail, with a flair for implicit theorizing along the way, the review is reminiscent of some of Kracauer's best Weimar criticism and points forward to his later work. He begins and ends the text with an appreciation of the various "happy inventions" in the film (such as Dumbo's drunken reverie of pink elephants), which he attributes to Disney's infallible "artistic instincts." But the review's underlying tone is deeply critical of Disney's turn, after the recent Fantasia (1940), to classical narrative and realistic motivation. Introducing a term that would come to figure centrally in his Theory of Film two decades later, Kracauer faults the director of Dumbo for clinging to "camera reality" and for "imitat[ing] the technique of the realistic film." Animation, in contrast, comes into its own when — much like the earlier slapstick comedies of silent cinema — it "spurns traditional notions of reality and creates [its] own laws for the elements of our visible world." In other words, Kracauer grounds his critical assessment of Dumbo in a normative distinction between animation and realism.

Disney himself had set the standards for what the animated film could do in his earlier shorts such as Plane Crazy (1928) and The Skeleton Dance (1929). From such films, Kracauer extrapolates the notion that animation "tends toward the dissolution rather than the reinforcement of conventional reality, and its function is not to draw a reality which can better be photographed." Miriam Hansen notes a similar investment in animation's "anti-empirical exuberance" in the writings of Walter Benjamin; but Dumbo, rather than simply using "the power of the cartoonist's pen" to assert the ability of an elephant to fly, resorts to conventional, narrative motivation by introducing a magical feather that allows its protagonist to take to the air. In other words, it thus supplies a reason, where animation as a cultural form has the power to dislodge everything from social conventions (to which, according to Kracauer, "Disney's feature films submit too readily") to instrumental reason itself. Kracauer's critical stance on Dumbo notwithstanding, in other words, his review offers a fundamentally positive evaluation of animation as a mass-cultural form, aligning his diagnosis with Benjamin's analysis of Mickey Mouse as a "dynamic figure of disruption." In this reading — for which Kracauer also finds isolated instances in certain sequences of Dumbo — animation, like slapstick, can generate therapeutic laughter, harboring emancipatory and utopian potentials.

When Kracauer returns to Disney in an article published five years later, his assessment has undergone a fundamental shift — but then, so has the world. In a 1946 article published in Commentary under the title "Hollywood's Terror Films: Do They Reflect an American State of Mind?" Kracauer makes brief reference to Disney's most recent film, The Three Caballeros (1944/45), produced under the auspices of the Good Neighbor Policy. The film mixes animation, photography, and live action in a series of loosely connected musical numbers, strung together as a fantastic travelogue across South America. Featuring Donald Duck, some stereotyped cartoon characters who represent Mexico and Brazil, and a number of popular Latin American stars, the episodes culminate in a hallucinogenic explosion of movement and color that recalls Dumbo's champagne-induced delirium in the "Pink Elephants on Parade" segment. In Theory of Film, Kracauer will eventually come to defend the looseness of episodic narrative construction, but in the immediate postwar moment, he has little patience for the way The Three Caballeros strings together its ever more discombobulated numbers. In the context of an argument about how the conspicuous tendencies toward sadism, violence, and the morbid in Hollywood films reflect the pervasive sense of "inner disintegration," Kracauer now reads Disney as "particularly sensitive to contemporary undercurrents of feeling": rather than utopian, Kracauer here considers Disney's cartoons symptomatic of a national state of mind, if not of the emerging global Cold War constellation more broadly. Disney's sadistic universe now appears to Kracauer as a defense against utopia, an inscription of the global threat of extinction that undercuts the power of the subject to imagine the world to be different. Drawing on a related assessment that his collaborator and friend Barbara Deming had recently published in Partisan Review, Kracauer contends that The Three Caballeros "shows us a universe torn to pieces as though it had been hit by a cluster of atomic bombs. That shattered universe is symptomatic of the way we feel about the world now around us. [...] Amid the debris of such a universe dark impulses are sure to find freer play."

This is no longer the language of antiempirical exuberance, but recalls instead the "medicinal bath" of fun ("Fun ist ein Stahlbad") for which Disney's sadistic universe stands in Adorno and Horkheimer's contemporaneous Dialectics of Enlightenment. In the 1930s, Benjamin had still harbored a critical enthusiasm for the way film "exploded this prison-world with the dynamite of the split second," claiming that this allowed us now to "set off calmly on journeys of adventure among its far-flung debris." Barely a decade later, the debris has become real and radioactive, producing urban ruinscapes of previously unimaginable dimensions. The same aspects that Benjamin and Kracauer had valorized before the catastrophe have now lost their utopian potential for the preemptive diffusion of tension through collective laughter and for the "disruption" of the historical process. They have become instead indices for history's catastrophic turn, which leaves "a wholly enlightened world radiant with triumphant calamity." As such, films like Disney's retain their diagnostic, and even prognostic, value — but the temporal horizon against which one might situate Disney's animation, if not the medium of film as such, has shifted diametrically. Whereas Kracauer had previously perceived the cinema to project glimpses of a reconciled future, however tenuous and dimly perceived, any such opening is now foreclosed. In the shadow of war and the Cold War, Kracauer is disillusioned in his own intellectual project of demonstrating the potential of film to generate transformative moments, whether through realism, animation, or laughter. With a rising emphasis on security and the transition to a perpetual state of war during the 1940s, laughter itself ends up "suggest[ing] a conformist attitude," as Kracauer puts it in a 1950 article on Preston Sturges. Its utopian dimension has been replaced by the immanence of the cultural symptoms one might detect at the movies.

In this respect, Kracauer's analysis of Hollywood in 1950 coincides with his similarly bleak view of Weimar cinema, which he had worked out in From Caligari to Hitler in the intervening years since the early Dumbo review. As I show in subsequent chapters, this overlap is explicit and hardly coincidental, as both assessments — of Hollywood and of Weimar — are born out of the same anxious postwar moment. They reflect an ongoing effort to understand totalitarianism both as a historical reality in Germany and as a present threat to liberal democracy in the United States. As Mark Greif describes this moment in his philosophical history of midcentury America, this moment saw the emergence of a broad and urgent discourse on the "crisis of man." Kracauer often drew quite explicitly on this discourse; and he joined it implicitly, not only in the shared concern with the changing relation between the human and the technological (in this case, the technology of media such as the cinema), but also in his ongoing concern with the ways cinema both constructs and constrains human subjectivity. While I argue that Kracauer never fully gave up on the utopian kernel that he had discerned in cinema ever since he began writing about it in the early 1920s, during the 1940s he clearly considered that kernel to have been thrown into crisis by the cinema's susceptibility to antidemocratic, authoritarian, conformist, and commercial pressures.

Like the utopian readings of cinema and laughter, this view of film as an illiberal medium had been a motif in Kracauer's film criticism since his beginnings as a writer for the Frankfurter Zeitung. It had taken on increasing urgency in the mid-1920s, when he took up the study of Marx and Marxism and eventually went head to head with the powerful Ufa studios in his role as the Weimar Republic's preeminent left-liberal film critic, now stationed in Berlin. Although neither the materialist vocabulary nor the subtly ironic tone of his analyses of white collar culture from the early 1930s would translate in any audible way into his far more straight-laced American prose, the critical stance of the 1940s was unmistakable and of a piece with Kracauer's earlier work: cinema, called on to imagine better worlds, had patently failed to realize the political hopes Kracauer had staked in it. From The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Hitler, and from The Three Caballeros to Truman and Eisenhower, films squandered their utopian energies by catering to antidemocratic trends and "dark impulses." Cinema had become symptomatic of the midcentury crisis of man.

And yet this view, expressed forcefully in From Caligari to Hitler and in essays on Hollywood for Commentary, Harper's, and Films in Review, was only one side of a dialectic that bound together cinema's failings with its persistent promises. For throughout these years, Kracauer continued to elaborate his ideas about cinema as a phenomenological medium of experience and as the site for encounters with what it might mean to be human even in the face of the crisis diagnosed everywhere by the "fundamental anthropology" that Greif describes. When Kracauer finally completed the long-gestating book on film aesthetics that he had originally projected in French exile, and which he published as Theory of Film in 1960, it was ultimately the trust in cinema's powers that prevailed. Though couched in the language of experience rather than utopia, and of physical reality rather than social materialism, the final elaboration of Kracauer's film theory resumed motifs that would appear to have lain dormant during the 1940s. Theory of Film again valorizes the power of slapstick, of movement, of spectatorship, and of cinema's ability to render the world's image, indeed to "redeem" it. Even as the book rehearses the critique of Disney for the realism Kracauer had already found problematic in Dumbo, Theory of Film's epilogue mounts Kracauer's most sustained defense of cinematic realism as a way forward out of the "ruins of ancient beliefs."

Kracauer's American writings, then, confront us with a number of profound continuities and shifts — both with respect to his earlier, Weimar-era writings and with regard to the trajectory that leads from the review of Dumbo to the epilogue of Theory of Film. There are several ways of accounting for, and locating, the shifts: We could trace them on an aesthetic level by pointing either to an often-noted change in Disney's films from utopian to "artless" and from inspired creation to taylorized production, or to the endgame of the classical Hollywood studio system and the emergence of a new cinematic idiom in Italian Neorealism. Alternately, we could trace Kracauer's "epistemological shift" on the biographical level to a theoretical change of heart as he adapts to his new surroundings during the war years and, in particular, changes his understanding of Hollywood. In yet another vein, we could trace Kracauer's various shifts in emphasis to the historical moment, seeking their causes in the impact of Hitler, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and in the aftermath of war, during which Kracauer was writing. Or finally, we could see Kracauer's shifting positions as the movement of a larger dialectic, which ties the critique of mass culture to its redemption, much in the way Kracauer himself earlier worked through the reifying aspects of photography or the mass ornament in order to locate a utopian potential precisely in their alienating effects. Each of these explanatory frameworks — aesthetic, biographical, historical, and dialectical — plays into Kracauer's shifting assessment of Disney and the function of laughter in the cinema, which I have glossed here as a first example for Kracauer's evolving critical positions upon his arrival in the United States. A second piece, published only half a year after the review of Dumbo, helps to elucidate further aspects of this evolution.


Although forced to live in penury for long stretches, Kracauer managed to keep up his cinema-going habits during the years of his French exile in Paris, where he remained a keen observer of the film scene. Writing principally for Swiss newspapers, he reviewed the work of René Clair, Jean Vigo, Jean Renoir, and Julien Duvivier, among others, and reported on general trends. In a 1939 overview entitled "Bemerkungen zum französischen Film" (Notes on French film), he took issue with some recent developments in French cinema — among them a preponderance of dialogue, a glut of "epic" films, and a failure to make good use of the medium by conjuring "the effect to be garnered from the small, the inconspicuous."

Again, these are critical motifs that anticipate the full elaboration of film's affinities for the small, the overlooked, and the inconspicuous in Theory of Film. But these motifs were modulated by the transition to life in the United States, which left explicit traces in an article Kracauer published in the National Board of Review Magazine in May 1942 titled "Why France Liked Our Films." The magazine supplied a brief biographical note at the head of the article, which located Kracauer's authority to write such a piece in the author's history of exile, noting that Kracauer "left Germany in 1933, and lived in France till a year ago when he escaped to America." But far more than Kracauer's French connection, I want to suggest, it is the pronoun in the first person that animates the article: the author of "Why France Liked Our Films" is speaking as a member of a group, as an American to Americans about "our" cultural export. While this might seem an overreading of the title (which, after all, could have been supplied by the journal's editors rather than by Kracauer himself), it turns out to be the punch line of the entire article, which self-consciously works through the shift from a European perspective to an American one.

The essay opens with a question: "What would an intelligent European observer learn about American life from American films?" Confidently assuming the mantle of the expert at the outset, Kracauer announces that he will be "operating in the field of rather personal impressions." But he soon takes his subjective voice back in favor of "incontestable facts" — namely, that American films have exerted an inexorable pull on the intellectual elite in Europe, and in France in particular. In order to answer the question posed in the title, Kracauer first paints a picture of French cinema; it is the picture of a gaping void that American films helped to fill.


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