Siegfried Kracauer: An Introduction

By Gertrud Koch; Jeremy Gaines | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Continuity and Mentality:
“From Caligari to Hitler”

ALONGSIDE Béla Balázs and Rudolf Arnheim, Kracauer was the third major film critic of the Weimar Republic to be forced into exile. We can quite unabashedly term him one of the founders of film theory, who, in his essays of the 1920s, had already foreseen with great perspicacity many of the later cultural developments traced in The Mass Ornament. In a manner that went well beyond what one would expect from a newspaper film critic in terms of aesthetic or other value judgments, Kracauer detected in individual films a new culture that arose with cinema. In this context, he was just as interested in the dominating architecture of the cinema houses as he was in the hierarchical structure of the dramatics and the stage sets of the films proper. Kracauer paid special attention to both areas, which unjustly earned him the reputation of someone more interested in a sociological analysis of the films' contents than in the aesthetic revaluation they sparked.

A lecture he held in 1932 before Berlin cinema owners and titled “Über die Aufgabe des Filmkritikers” (On the tasks of a film critic) has for far too long been regarded solely as a profession of his beliefs on the subject. The fact that an element of provocation may have been involved has gone unnoticed. Above all, his pronouncement that “a premier film critic … is only conceivable as a social critic” is what commentators have remembered and has been wrongly equated with the following: “His mission is: to uncover the social ideas and ideologies concealed in your average film and, by means of these revelations, to break the influence of the films themselves wherever necessary.” 1 Even at the time, Kracauer knew that ideology critique could not simply be used as a political and practical instrument, and he was, of course, aware that a critic's pronouncements were hardly going to help precisely where it was necessary to break a film's spell. One of the first studies Kracauer composed in exile in New York was

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