Urban Optics: Film, Phantasmagoria and the City in Benjamin and Kracauer

By Gilloch, Graeme | New Formations, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Urban Optics: Film, Phantasmagoria and the City in Benjamin and Kracauer


Gilloch, Graeme, New Formations


THE CINEMATIC CITY

The social and cultural theorists Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) and Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) were certainly not the first to identify an 'elective affinity' or 'structural homology'1 between film as the most modern cultural mass medium and the metropolis as the most modern human habitat and locus of mass experience. Indeed, by the late 1920s and early 1930s such correspondences and connections were rather commonplace for both pioneering filmmakers and early film critics and theorists. Nor do Benjamin and Kracauer really provide any systematic mapping or definitive theory of any such relationship, confining their observations to asides and digressions within texts principally concerned with other matters. For example, Benjamin's typically fragmentary reflections on this theme take the form of bold and provocative assertions and enigmatic speculations peppering, among others, his various writings on the cityscapes of Europe, his recollections of childhood Berlin, and his unfinished study of the Parisian arcades. Even in the famous 1936 essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility', Benjamin's most sustained and substantial engagement with the film medium, and a text in which its complex relationship with urban architecture clearly plays a key role, the precise character of any affinity remains highly elusive and profoundly ambiguous. Kracauer's thoughts on the interplay of cinema and city are similarly disparate, spanning his journalistic cultural and film criticism during the Weimar Republic and finding somewhat fuller elaboration in his major post-war studies of film: From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947) and Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960). But notwithstanding the careful, detailed analyses of specific films foregrounding the cityscape (in particular, the setting of the street) and the frequent references to the camera's penchant for the metropolitan flow of life, one should remember that the connections between camera and city identified and explored by Kracauer appear only in the context of other, wider concerns - distinguishing and deciphering motifs and manifestations of authoritarian dispositions in interwar German cinema, and the delineation of the capacities and proclivities of film more generally.

Nevertheless, if the affinity between film and the city finds perhaps rather less explicit exploration in Benjamin's and Kracauer's writings than one might expect, one should not be deceived into thinking it of negligible significance. Indeed, the filmic and/or cinematic qualities, experiences and moments of the metropolitan environment, and the urban sensibility of cinema-goers and of the character of film reception perse, lie at the very heart of their writings. And the reason for this is clear: for both Benjamin and Kracauer, albeit in rather different ways, the cinematic medium contains a radical and popular political promise. For both, the film camera is uniquely able to penetrate and capture in myriad and novel ways our environment, in particular, the human built-environment composing the cityscape. Film not only represents and reveals what it has recorded with unprecedented felicity and fidelity, but also allows for the critical recomposition and reconfiguration of this visual material. For Benjamin in particular,2 techniques of editing, montage, slow motion and superimposition enable the construction of images involving the most provocative juxtapositions, sequences and patterns. In various ways, for both Kracauer and Benjamin, these complex and illuminating moving images will irrevocably transform our weary everyday perception of the quotidian life-world. Film so stimulates our sensibilities, so sharpens our sensitivities, that the great cities we inhabit will be recognised anew and radically transfigured.

It is precisely this revolutionary, transformative vision of the film medium which incurs Theodor W. …

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