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Siegfried Kracauer

(1889—1966)


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(1889–1966)

Germancultural critic, journalist and film theorist. Jewish, Kracauer was part of the talented intellectual diaspora that fled to the United States to escape the Nazis. Although never part of the inner circle of the Frankfurt School, he was close friends with two of its core members, Theodor Adorno and Leo Löwenthal.

Born in Frankfurt am Main, Kracauer originally trained as an architect, writing a doctorate on ornamental metalwork in Berlin and Potsdam. He worked as an architect until 1917 when he was drafted into the army. He tried to return to his profession after the war, but it proved impossible and he drifted into writing, eventually joining the editorial staff of Frankfurter Zeitung in 1921 as an arts journalist writing primarily about film and literature.

Die Angestellten. Aus dem neuesten Deutschland (1930), translated as The Salaried Masses (1998), his first academic book, is an ethnological study (indebted to Max Weber and Georg Simmel, under whom he studied) of white-collar workers in Berlin, written as though they were representatives of ‘primitive tribes’ whose habits were foreign and strange. An early and important but underrated attempt to think and write about everyday life, The Salaried Masses anticipates the critical sociological work of the Frankfurt School's Institute for Social Research under Max Horkheimer.

Between 1921 and 1933 (when he was forced into exile), he wrote over 700 film reviews, as well as hundreds of articles on a wide range of other cultural topics. He also found time to write a semi-autobiographical novel, Ginster (1928). A sample of these essays is available in Das Ornament der Masse (1963), translated as The Mass Ornament (1995), the title of which is taken from his essay on chorus-line dancers. The collection also contains a fragment of the book Der Detektiv Roman: Ein philosophischer Traktat (The Detective Novel: A Philosophical Treatise), completed in 1925 but never published in full in his lifetime. Like Ernst Bloch, also a fellow-traveller of the Frankfurt School, Kracauer saw in the detective novel a microcosm of modernity.

Like his friend Walter Benjamin, Kracauer left it somewhat late to escape Europe but happily, whereas the former did not make it, he did, though his family were not so fortunate. With the assistance of the Institute for Social Research he managed to get to the US in 1941 and at the age of 51 had to start all over again. He made ends meet writing for The Nation, Harper's Magazine, and The New York Times Book Review, as well as reports for government agencies like UNESCO. He was given a job as film curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art, which gave his life some measure of stability and enabled him to complete his most ambitious and best-known work, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960), which was written in English.

Theory of Film ranks with What is Cinema? (1958) by André Bazin, as one of the pioneering works of cinema studies. Kracauer theorized that film was at once part of modernity, which for him meant socially-fragmenting change, and a possible source of redemption: the cinematic image was capable of providing a utopian image of totality which society itself was unable to do. But this image was to be grasped only by a close analysis of the micrological details of the film.

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Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.


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