Film as Memory: Siegfried Kracauer's Psychological History of German 'National Culture'

By Mack, Michael | Journal of European Studies, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Film as Memory: Siegfried Kracauer's Psychological History of German 'National Culture'


Mack, Michael, Journal of European Studies


MICHAEL MACK [*]

Introduction

Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler has been criticized as a biased, reductive and unscholarly account of both German film and German history. Evaluations range from outright condemnation to critical appreciation. According to Dagmar Barnouw, From Caligari to Hitler is Kracauer's 'least satisfying work'. [1] Barnouw takes issue with Kracauer's American perspective: '(...) the perspective established by the exile from his position in another time, in another country, was distorting.' [2] This outright rejection of Kracauer's critical approach to both German film and German 'national culture' contrasts with Anton Kaes's more balanced criticism of From Caligari to Hitler. He appreciates the link established between film, history and politics: 'Although we rejected Kracauer's claim about "the" Germans, we were convinced by his basic premise that films must not be separated from their political, social and cultural habitat.' [3] Kaes's criticism of generalizing tendencies in From Caligari to Hitler has rightly the critical consensus behind it, but Kracauer's argument about German national culture and history cannot be called 'deterministic'. [4] In this essay I shall show that far from being deterministic Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler is necessarily counteracting determinism by its very emphasis on the need for social and cultural critique, an element that he perceives to be lacking in Weimar Germany.

Kracauer makes it quite clear that he does not intend to fabricate myths about 'a fixed national character'. [5] His 'fear of all that is definitely fixed' [6] is well known. In From Caligari to Hitler, Kracauer indeed highlights certain points in the films of the Weimar Republic which evidence the possibility of a change of certain authoritarian patterns within German 'national culture'. These moments are closely linked to historical events. In 1918 'the collapse of the old hierarchy of values and conventions' offered 'a unique opportunity to overcome hereditary habits'. [7] Kracauer examines why such a change did not occur. He not only analyses the causes, but he also gives alternatives to what took place. As I shall show in the concluding part of this essay, Kracauer affirms a non-positivist understanding of law as an alternative to the authoritarian perpetration of crimes that violate human rights. The possibility of change figures in films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari which set out to critique autho ritarianism. [8] In this way, Kracauer criticizes the marginality of these impulses for change within German film and German 'national culture' but he does not himself subscribe to a deterministic, static and authoritarian view of history.

Indeed, Kracauer focuses his criticism on the espousal of the notion of destiny in Weimar German film and it is against this background that, as Miriam Hansen has shown, he evaluates chance. [9] Chance, however, is a characteristic of American slapstick comedy in which the comedian avoids the grip of power by chance escape and in his Marseille notebooks of 1940 Kracauer defines chance and comedy in this context of the avoidance of both power and danger: [10] 'The leitmotif of slapstick comedy is the play with danger, with catastrophe, and its prevention in the nick of time.' [11] Miriam Hansen has shown that this last-minute escape from catastrophe has a contrasting relation to the concept of destiny and she has argued that 'the elided trauma that disfigures Theory of Film is that around which From Caligari to Hitler (1947) resolved in a more direct way: the political, philosophical, and world historical impact of the Holocaust'. [12] Significantly, Kracauer sees the political, philosophical, and historical causes of the Holocaust within the dominant forces of German 'national culture'. As I shall show in this paper, a critique of destiny, that is to say, of unchangeability constitutes the subtext of Kracauer's thought on Weimar German film. …

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