Review: Kracauer, a biography

This book it is much more than just a biography - it engages with the substantial intellectual disputes in which Kracauer participated


Kracauer: A Biography by Jörg Später (Polity Press, £35)

Jörg Später describes his book on Siegfried Kracauer as a biography and its biographical details are extraordinarily well researched. But it is much more than a biography. Später also engages with the substantial intellectual disputes in which Kracauer participated, thereby laying out the main points in the development of Kracauer’s views.

Who was Siegfried Kracauer? Born in 1889 in Frankfurt, he began his work in the Weimar Republic period. He belonged to that school of intellectual thought widely known as the Frankfurt School, which included better-known figures such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno (with whom Kracauer had a special and somewhat convoluted relationship), Ernst Bloch, the tragic Walter Benjamin, and many others. Almost all of the School were Jews. After Hitler’s rise to power, its members emigrated, or were exiled, deported, or murdered.

It is difficult today to fit the work of the Frankfurt School into the conventional academic division of labour. They inhabited the interstices between social philosophy, a critique of contemporary society, cultural studies, sociology, and literary and artistic theory. Kracauer’s own trajectory began with (what the author calls) a para-religious phase, perhaps inspired by his reaction to the revival of Jewish intellectual life in Frankfurt, in no small part due to the charismatic rabbi, Nehemias Anton Nobel, whose most famous pupil was Franz Rosenzweig.

Kracauer’s intellectual development moved through several subsequent stages, which focused (at different stages and to different degrees) on post-Hegelian philosophy, Marxism, film studies, art criticism, literary criticism, communications studies, and sociological theory. Kracauer was somewhat of a maverick in the intellectual circles in which he participated. He was a pioneer in making film an object of intellectual study and, in particular, in the study of propaganda, as part of the newly emerging discipline of communications study.

He was also the author of two semi-autobiographical novels, as well as a study of Jacques Offenbach, the 19th-century French Jewish composer. Given his background and his appalling experiences as a Jew, I find it surprising that Kracauer, in his post-1945 writings, never explicitly turned to what is often called the “Jewish Question”.

In 1933, when Hitler came to power, and soon after the burning of the Reichstag, Kracauer escaped to Paris by the skin of his teeth. His story thereafter is mostly one of exile, hardship and penury, until his final years in America. After the Germans occupied the north of France, Kracauer and his wife escaped to Marseilles. After much suffering and many false hopes, they, unlike so many others, were fortunate enough to obtain permits to exit France, which they did in February 1941. After May 1941, Jews were no longer allowed to leave France and the deportations began. Kracauer, with his wife, went from Lisbon to New York. He continued his work, ultimately gaining some of the recognition that had hitherto eluded him. He found New York a stimulating location, containing as it did many German intellectual refugees whom he had known from European days as well as American thinkers addressing the same problems that interested him.

After the war, a new generation of German intellectuals and academics arose, by many of whom he was seen to be a pioneer, especially in the social history and theory of film.

Später’s book is long. It surely will be the definitive biography of Kracauer for many years to come. The biographical story is fascinating. The part that counts as intellectual biography perhaps less so. It is not accessible to anyone who does not already grasp the essence of the controversies in which the Frankfurt School, and Kracauer in particular, engaged. There is much quoting by Später from the works of Kracauer and his protagonists, and hence no avoidance, or explanation, of the jargon they used.

This is not a book through which to learn ab initio what the Frankfurt School, or Kracauer, thought and what it meant; it is a book that already assumes a fairly complete grasp of the intellectual parameters within which they worked.

David-Hillel Ruben is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of London

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