Essays (book reviews)

Kracauer: A Biography
by Jörg Später,
translated by Daniel Steuer

(Polity Press, 2020, 584 pages)




Jörg Später is quick to orient us as to how properly read his superb book: it may be centred on the life and times of a special individual but it aims, more broadly, to be a “group portrait”. Siegfried Kracauer, Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno: a formidable bunch whose dates of death covered a span of 37 years (Benjamin committed suicide at the still young age of 48 on the French-Spanish border in 1940, Bloch passed away in 1977 aged 92), but who shared an intense friendship in the 1920s and ‘30s.


Später does not avoid the intimate details that are available to us in archives of their correspondence – the fights, the separations and silences, the consciously repressed gay love between Kracauer and the precociously brilliant, teenage Adorno – but he is more intent on bringing out a shared nucleus of thought, insight and sensibility. This act of sharing was especially important, it seems, to Kracauer: he referred to it as a “side-by-side” process of mutual conversation, or what he charmingly called “symphilosophising”. Sympathy and philosophy: not always easy to maintain together, especially whenever the changing tides of the 20th century’s turbulent political history intervened.


Kracauer (1889-1966) emerges as an intriguing subject for biography. On the one hand, there is something quite ordinary about his life: fidelity to one woman (Lili) from the moment they met to his dying breath; and a range of sedentary activities typical of the intellectual class – reading, writing, research reports for various institutions, some legal battles, many scholarly quarrels, thousands of handwritten or typed letters. Nothing particularly sensational, melodramatic or scandalous there.


On the other hand, Kracauer was, for much of his life, a very stressed-out member of what we call today the precariat: a freelancer, never a university professor (in this, he was like Benjamin, and unlike Adorno and Bloch, who led somewhat more comfortable lives, especially post-war). Pushed by sheer, material necessity, his writing crossed many genres: newspaper journalism, pungent essays (collected in The Mass Ornament), popular biography (his 1938 book on the composer Offenbach), sociological treatise (The Salaried Masses, 1930), and an “art history” of cinema (his magisterial Theory of Film, 1960).


So Kracauer was blown by the winds and tides – and what tumultuous weather it turned out to be. Losing his job at a German newspaper because of the rise of Nazism and the growing wave of anti-Semitism, he and Lili became the model of cultural “expropriation” that he so often wrote about: starving in France, hustling for transit papers to the USA (indeed, the events dramatised in Christian Petzold’s film Transit [2018] overlap directly with Kracauer’s time in Marseille), struggling to make secure professional contacts in the new world of America when he was already in his 50s. (In a detail that this 61-year-old freelancer can relate to, Kracauer privately complained about having to “show gratitude to self-important editors who were 20 years his junior”. Except that, these days, the gap covers 20 to 35 years … )


Yet, across all these different times and places, jobs and difficulties, periods and changes, Kracauer did manage to create, against all the odds, a coherent, consistent body of work. This is where Später is at his best: not only in tracing the themes that unite Kracauer’s very diverse writings, from early novels (Ginster and Georg) to the ambitious vision of art and society intertwined in From Caligari to Hitler (1947), but also in identifying the intellectual commonality of that original “gang of four”.


Adorno, Benjamin, Bloch, Kracauer: each, in their own way, tried to combine a materialist understanding of social history (especially the one they were living through) with some “principle of hope” (as Bloch called it), a sometimes mystical soulfulness that reached beyond the spatial and temporal confines of our miserable world to a Utopia, or at least something a little transcendent. Each of them was, in their own way, a genuine poet.


For Kracauer more specifically, his vision of things was thoroughly energised, inspired by and mediated through his love of cinema. Film was fantasy, epic mythology, star glamour, a new aesthetic for a modern metropolis; but it was also the precious record of the tiniest secrets of everyday existence – the reflections in puddles and stirring leaves on trees that he so often eulogised. Kracauer sought to grasp both the underlying pattern of society and the glorious ephemerality of sheer living, walking, talking “side-by-side”. Cinema gave Kracauer a way to think through and systematise all that.


In his final project, on the theory of history, Kracauer concluded that we must avoid the finality of “last things”, and steal away into a more secret “antechamber” where – as Joe Strummer said so well – “the future is unwritten”. The eternal promise of the unfinished script, and the as-yet off-screen space …


This review first appeared in Dutch translation in de Filmkrant, issue 436, December 2020.


© Adrian Martin 1 November 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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