Cinema and Media Studies Siegfried Kracauer
Johannes von Moltke
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0123


Siegfried Kracauer (b. 1889–d. 1960) was one of the preeminent film theorists and cultural critics of the 20th century. While he is perhaps best known for his contributions to film studies and for his loose association with the Frankfurt School of critical theory (of which he was never a member), Kracauer wore many hats during his lifetime: trained as an architect, he had a prolific career as a journalist, film critic, and editor with the Frankfurter Zeitung during the Weimar era, while also introducing himself as a novelist with Ginster in 1928. Forced into exile by the rise of Hitler’s National Socialist Party, Kracauer went on during his years in Paris to write Georg (a sequel to Ginster), as well as a “social biography” of Jacques Offenbach, before securing passage to the United States in 1941. Here, with the help of various grants and under the aegis of the recently established Film Library at the Museum of Modern Art, he completed his two best-known books: From Caligari to Hitler—which pioneered methods of studying film as both an aesthetic and a sociological object, and became a foundational text for the study of national cinemas—and Theory of Film, a good example of what has come to be known as classical realist film theory. His final project, a book on the concept of history, was published posthumously as History: The Last Things Before the Last. Like his “extraterritorial” life, the reception of Kracauer’s works has taken various turns, both in his country of origin and in the United States, where he spent the last quarter century of his life. Extremely well known and well connected during the 1920s, Kracauer was all but forgotten in Germany in the wake of the Third Reich until the publication in the early 1960s of his film books and two anthologies of essays from the Weimar years. The latter, by contrast, remained virtually unknown in the Anglophone world until a conference at Columbia University (published by New German Critique) marked the centennial of Kracauer’s birth, and Thomas Levin translated the essays collected in The Mass Ornament for publication in 1996. While still overshadowed in some respects by the lasting attention to the work of his friends Theodor W. Adorno and (especially during the 1990s) Walter Benjamin, Kracauer’s writings have enjoyed a steady and growing global readership that continues to make new discoveries in his voluminous works, now available in a critical edition from Suhrkamp.

General Overviews

While there exists no comprehensive biography of Kracauer, readers seeking an introduction to Kracauer’s life and work can draw on a number of published overviews and portraits. The portrait provided in Adorno 1991, first delivered as a radio address and subsequently published, was as influential as the tribute itself was ambivalent (Kracauer took issue with many of its assertions in his correspondence with Adorno). Brodersen 2001 offers a concise and accessible biography in the Rowohlt series Rororo Monographien, whereas Gertrud Koch, a leading scholar of film and aesthetic philosophy in Germany, delves deeper to offer readings of individual texts and to situate Kracauer’s work theoretically in Koch 2000. Having worked for many years at the German Literary Archives in Marbach and having co-edited Kracauer 2004–2012 (cited under Kracauer’s Writings), Ingrid Belke is perhaps the single most knowledgeable person concerning Kracauer’s “Nachlass,” or papers. Belke and Renz 1994 and Belke 2012, a three-part “portrait” for a Luxemburg-based cultural journal, are consequently brimming with archival detail and provide extremely useful glosses on Kracauer’s life and work. Agard 2010 figures prominently in the recent rediscovery of Kracauer by French readers, offering a chronologically organized overview of his life and work. Traverso 1994 and Jay 1986 both offer more thematically organized introductions that foreground the motif of deterritorialization that Kracauer himself considered a key aspect of his own life (even before being driven into exile by the Nazis) and that receives explicit theoretical treatment in some of his texts, most notably Kracauer 1969 (cited under Kracauer’s Writings).

  • Adorno, Theodor W. “The Curious Realist: On Siegfried Kracauer.” New German Critique 54 (1 October 1991): 159–177.

    DOI: 10.2307/488432

    Influential tribute to Kracauer on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday by Theodor W. Adorno. First translated for inclusion in the Kracauer special issue of New German Critique, it appears also in Adorno’s Notes to Literature. The German text was originally delivered as a radio address and then published in Merkur before being included in Noten zur Literatur, Volume 3 (1965).

  • Agard, Olivier. Kracauer: Le Chiffonnier Mélancolique. Paris: CNRS, 2010.

    Chronological introduction to Kracauer’s life and work for a French readership, where Kracauer’s writings have recently begun to become available in translation.

  • Belke, Ingrid. “Siegfried Kracauer (1889–1966): Ein Portrait.” Galerie: Revue Culturelle et Pédagogique 30.3 (2012): 536–568.

    Three-part biographical sketch that situates Kracauer in historical and geographical context (Frankfurt, Paris, New York) and gives detailed accounts of some central texts and debates.

  • Belke, Ingrid, and Irina Renz. Siegfried Kracauer, 1889–1966. Marbach am Neckar, Germany: Deutsche Schillergesellschaft, 1994.

    Chronologically organized overview of important dates and events from Kracauer’s life, with numerous illustrations and excerpts from archival materials. Published in connection with an exhibition to mark the centennial of Kracauer’s birth. Exhibition was held in Marbach, Frankfurt, and Berlin in 1989 and then in New York in 1990.

  • Brodersen, Momme. Siegfried Kracauer. Rowohlts Monographien. Hamburg, Germany: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 2001.

    Nicely illustrated, brief, chronological biography. With heavy emphasis on the years up to 1933 and considerably less space devoted to Kracauer’s years in exile in France and then in the United States. Includes two-page chronology of major biographical events and works.

  • Jay, Martin. “The Extraterritorial Life of Siegfried Kracauer.” In Permanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America. By Martin Jay, 152–197. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

    Influential assessment of Kracauer by the foremost intellectual historian of the Frankfurt School, first published in 1975.

  • Koch, Gertrud. Siegfried Kracauer: An Introduction. Translated by Jeremy Gaines. Kracauer Zur Einführung. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

    Translation of a nuanced introduction to Kracauer’s writings that originally appeared in German in 1996 and was revised for the second edition in 2012. Provides philosophical frames of reference for Kracauer’s work (phenomenology, existentialism, ideology critique, among others).

  • Traverso, Enzo. Siegfried Kracauer: Itinéraire d’un intellectuel nomade. Paris: Ed. la Découverte, 1994.

    Comparatively early, chronologically organized introduction to Kracauer’s work in French by an Italian historian. In keeping with Kracauer’s own emphasis on his “extraterritoriality” (see also Jay 1985) Traverso foregrounds the exilic dimensions of Kracauer’s thought. This motif would be picked up by numerous subsequent commentators.

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