‘Please read when alone! … Nobody is to see this letter – be careful, Teddie. You are 19 – I am 34 – may it work out, after all?’ Dated 5 April 1923 and written on Frankfurter Zeitung notepaper, the letter was a declaration of love from Siegfried Kracauer, the Weimar Republic’s celebrated cultural critic, to Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno, precocious teenager and future philosopher. ‘These past two days,’ Friedel wrote, ‘I have again been feeling such a tormenting love for you that it now seems to me as if I could quite simply not exist on my own. Existence has become stale for me, apart from you; I don’t see how it can continue like this.’ The letter is the first in a newly translated collection of their correspondence, which ended only with Kracauer’s death in 1966. It will now be read by strangers, while Teddie and Friedel, one imagines, turn in their graves. But how lovely to read Frankfurt’s otherwise austere critical theorists blindsided by passion.
Kracauer and Adorno were introduced by a mutual friend towards the end of the First World War and soon began spending Saturday afternoons together reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Perhaps theirs isn’t the only romance to have blossomed over the transcendental deduction of the categories of understanding. ‘I am not exaggerating when I say that I owe more to this reading than to my academic teachers,’ Adorno wrote many years later. ‘Kracauer made Kant come alive for me.’ This wasn’t the usual story of the worldly sage and his impressionable pupil, however. Friedel was insecure, self-conscious about his stutter and his looks (which were ‘extraterritorial’, according to Adorno), while Teddie, whom the sociologist Leo Löwenthal described as ‘the pampered young gentleman from a well-to-do family’, was rarely troubled by self-doubt.
‘My condition is ghastly,’ Kracauer wrote in his first letter to Adorno:
I am so fearful about the transience of what is dearest to me – what to me is the meaning or the fulfilment of my existence. Do you believe in the everlasting nature of our friendship? It would always need to be a presence – a living presence – and yet how could that be? I tremble as I fear for its continuation. You are 19 and I am 34 – you are going your own way, you must strike out into the world – and at 19 nobody can provide any guarantees – not even you. In short, things between us are falling apart, and I am left crushed. Are you not much more resolute than I am? I am an abyss – and as insecure as a boy. I shall never be a mature man – I don’t know what to do.
Kracauer wasn’t quite Aschenbach to Adorno’s Tadzio, but a strong sense emerges that the erotic power was with the younger man, while the older man was lost or, as Georg Lukács put it in The Theory of the Novel (1920), in a phrase that resonated with Kracauer, ‘transcendentally homeless’.
Adorno described Kracauer as ‘a man with no skin, as though everything external attacked his defenceless interior, as though he could defend himself only by giving voice to his vulnerability’. This was in 1964, during a character assassination of Kracauer in the guise of a radio profile titled ‘The Curious Realist’. By then their love affair was over, replaced by a testy friendship that didn’t stop short of public score settling. In ‘Talk with Teddie’, an account of meeting Adorno in Frankfurt in 1960, Kracauer rounds on Adorno’s philosophy, depicting it not as an unfolding of the Hegelian dialectic towards the absolute – as Adorno no doubt wished it to be perceived – but as a way of proving its author right. ‘To him,’ Kracauer wrote, ‘dialectics is a means of maintaining his superiority over all imaginable opinions, viewpoints, trends, happenings, by dissolving, condemning or again rescuing them as he pleases. Thus he establishes himself as master and controller of a world he has never absorbed.’
Would Adorno have allowed himself to give voice, even privately, to the kind of vulnerability he diagnosed in Kracauer? If he were gay, would he have allowed himself to admit it? ‘I no longer believe that I have any ability left at all to feel love for a woman,’ he wrote in one letter. ‘It never was more than a beautiful illusion, sadly and artificially cultivated, and it has come to an end.’ Yet as the correspondence continued throughout the 1920s, Adorno began to write about his romances, to Kracauer’s exasperation. ‘I must tell you … that your account of your relationship with Gretel did hurt me deeply – not the fact that you were having it, but that you walked alongside me for so long without my knowing anything about it.’ Adorno married Gretel Karplus, a chemist, in 1937 after a long relationship; seven years earlier, Kracauer had married Lili Ehrenreich, whom he met while she was working as a librarian at the Institute for Social Research, the headquarters of the Frankfurt School. Both men remained married until they died; neither fathered children.
In Jörg Später’s biography of Kracauer, published in German five years ago and now translated, Adorno is presented as intellectually fatherless and thus serially dependent on spiritual surrogates such as Kracauer, Walter Benjamin and Max Horkheimer. This seems a bit mean to Oskar Wiesengrund, the wine merchant who bankrolled his pampered young son. Adorno (who dropped the ‘Wiesengrund’ during his American exile), belonged to a generation of German Jews who rebelled against their businessman fathers, just as their fathers had rebelled against their own parents’ religiosity. Without such young men, Hannah Arendt wrote, Freud would never have come up with the Oedipus complex, which is at least a suggestive overstatement. And without their wealthy fathers, Adorno, Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Horkheimer, Löwenthal, Herbert Marcuse and Friedrich Pollock would all have struggled to spend as much time as they did finessing their neo-Marxist accounts of Verblendungszusammenhang, the system of delusion that prevents the masses from rising up in revolution. All were raised in what they took to be gilded cages in a hostile society; in his essay ‘A Berlin Chronicle’, Benjamin described the Jews in his neighbourhood as living ‘in a posture compounded of self-satisfaction and resentment that turned it into something like a ghetto held on lease’.
Kracauer, whose father had died in 1918, wasn’t as materially fortunate as his peers, nor as much of a Marxist. Born in Frankfurt in 1889, the same year as Hitler and Charlie Chaplin, he was expected to make a living and studied architecture. On the side, he read sociology with Georg Simmel and phenomenology with Max Scheler. The one major extant example of Kracauer’s architectural work is Frankfurt’s Military Memorial Cemetery, which opened in 1916. Its tombs are arranged at right angles in allées lined by geometrically cut foliage; at the centre is a funerary cube bearing the names of the dead. In the first of his two novels, the semi-autobiographical Ginster (1928), Kracauer wrote: ‘To hide the tombs like Easter eggs … seemed too soft for these times of general war. Such times called for a cemetery where their horror would be reflected … a system of a cemetery that was similar to a project of military organisation.’
Kracauer perceived a similar regimentation of life after the war, the masses doomed to work by day in Taylorist production processes organised on spatial principles not so different from his graveyard, and to be entertained in the evenings by what he called the ‘distraction industries’. He was of the same mind as Benjamin, who wrote in ‘Experience and Poverty’ (1933) that
this much is clear: experience has fallen in value, amid a generation which from 1914 to 1918 had to experience some of the most monstrous events in the history of the world. Perhaps this is less remarkable than it appears. Wasn’t it noticed at the time how many people returned from the front in silence? Not richer but poorer in communicable experience? … For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly: strategic experience has been contravened by positional warfare; economic experience, by the inflation; physical experience, by hunger; moral experiences, by the ruling powers.
As Kracauer knew from his Saturday afternoon trysts with Adorno, Kant regarded experience as the synthesis of sensuality and understanding. The self-alienation that was capitalism’s most diabolical product made such experience impossible in postwar Germany. As Kracauer saw it, ‘transcendental homelessness’ was a social condition, manifested in a wide variety of cultural phenomena. He was particularly interested in its spatial expression. In an essay on detective fiction from the early 1920s, he described the hotel lobby as emblematic of modernity, contrasting it with the sacred architecture that once held communities together. ‘Rudiments of individuals slide in the nirvana of relaxation, faces are lost behind the newspaper, and the uninterrupted artificial light illumines only mannequins. It is a coming and going of unknowns who are changed into empty forms by forgetting their passwords, imperceptible, like Chinese shadows. If they had an interiority, it would have no windows.’ (Note that extraordinary, prescient remark about passwords.)
Writing regularly for the Frankfurter Zeitung, Kracauer described dancing clubs as ‘pleasure barracks’ and cinemas as ‘optical fairylands’. He defended Frankfurt’s new skyscrapers as harbingers of progress that only bourgeois philistines could oppose. In this, he followed Adolf Loos’s argument in ‘Ornament and Crime’ (1913) and signalled his approval of Bauhaus aesthetics: ornament was a meaningless excrescence in a meaningless age; only when it was stripped away could there be progress.
Kracauer became a salaried flâneur, an analyst of the modern urban experience and of the rise of what Adorno and Horkheimer would later call the ‘culture industry’ – cinema, revues, photography, advertising hoardings, movies, circuses, pulp fiction (strangely, he wrote very little on popular music). He reported from the first German murder trial at which a psychoanalyst was called to give expert testimony. He sought out the zeitgeist in places where professional philosophers disdained to tread, and specialised in finding the profound in the superficial. Thirty years later, Barthes compared Citroëns to cathedrals and identified the mythical appeal of washing powder. But Kracauer dived into the shallows first.
Benjamin praised him as a fellow ragpicker, sorting through cultural trash for meaning. In writing about our bewitchment by ephemera, Benjamin wanted to shock readers out of consumer fetishism and raise revolutionary consciousness. Kracauer had no such pretensions. He was never as dedicated a Marxist, still less convinced that pointing out the fatuities of consumer capitalism would shake the masses out of their delusions.
In 1927, Kracauer set out his credo in the Frankfurter Zeitung (try getting this past a newspaper editor today): ‘An analysis of the simple surface manifestations of an epoch can contribute more to determining its place in the historical process than judgments of the epoch about itself. As expressions of the tendencies of a given time, these judgments cannot be considered valid testimonies about its overall situation.’ This is the start of his essay ‘The Mass Ornament’, in which he analysed the Tiller Girls as a symptom of the modern age. The synchronised routines of the high-kicking dance troupe were, he thought, an allegory of the rationalisation of labour.
These products of American ‘distraction factories’ are no longer individual girls, but indissoluble female units whose movements are mathematical demonstrations. Through weekly newsreels in movie houses they have managed to reach even the tiniest villages. One glance at the screen reveals that the ornaments consist of thousands of bodies, sexless bodies in bathing suits. The regularity of their patterns is acclaimed by the masses, who themselves are arranged in row upon ordered row.
‘When they formed an undulating snake,’ he elaborated in ‘Girls and Crisis’ (1931), ‘they radiantly illustrated the virtues of the conveyor belt; when they tapped their feet in fast tempo, it sounded like business, business … One envisioned an uninterrupted chain of automobiles gliding from the factories into the world, and believed that the blessing of prosperity had no end.’
If you really wanted to know what was going on in 1927, Später argues, better to read Kracauer’s ‘The Mass Ornament’ than, say, Heidegger’s contemporaneously published Being and Time. Perhaps, but it’s worth pointing out what Kracauer didn’t: that the Tiller Girls were not a product of the American distraction factories, but originated in Manchester in 1889. John Tiller, cotton trader by day and musical impresario by night, had noticed that the effect of chorus dancers was marred by lack of discipline and, we must suppose, solved the problem by applying proto-Taylorian Mancunian production techniques. Everyone from Leni Riefenstahl and Busby Berkeley to today’s Japanese precision walkers treads the path established by the Tiller Girls. In 1923, the Hungarian artist and Bauhaus teacher László Moholy-Nagy made a collage called Slide in which Tiller-like dancers recline on a curved chute to form a human conveyer belt, each pair of splayed legs ending in Mary Janes: an entwining of sexual pleasure with the efficiency of mass production, with women reduced, depending on your perspective, to cogs in the machine or to its products.
What got lost in mass society, Kracauer thought, just as in the chorus line, was the individual. No wonder that in his extensive writings about the dominant culture industry, cinema, it was Charlie Chaplin, the human spanner in the works, who drew his attention. In Modern Times (1936), Chaplin is out of sync with his co-workers, unproductive, distracted, failing to take the business of business seriously. But Kracauer saw in Chaplin something besides a critique of Fordism. The figure of ‘the Tramp’ in The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928) and City Lights (1931) resonated with the man with no skin. ‘Other people,’ Kracauer wrote,
have a conscious ego and live in human relationships; he has lost his ego, which is why he cannot live with what is generally called life … A human being without surface, without the possibility of being in touch with the world. In pathology this would be called a split ego, schizophrenia. A hole. But the purely human, unconnected, shines out of this hole.
When Chaplin arrived at Berlin’s Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse in 1931, despite protests from Hitler’s brownshirts, who mistakenly thought he was Jewish, Kracauer was among the fans waiting on the platform. For Kracauer, Später writes, ‘the violence of the world and the weakness of the individual wrestle with each other, and the fact that Chaplin’s humour at least makes a world that behaves with such seriousness look foolish, even if it is not able to unhinge it, is a consolation.’
By the late 1920s Kracauer was writing more than a hundred pieces a year on film. Cinema, as he saw it, was the key to explaining the modern age. It was also his escape, a place where he could enjoy special access to reality without being affected by it. But reality caught up with him, as with all Jews in Germany, when Hitler came to power in 1933. Kracauer’s work disappeared: there was no future for newspapers in employing a Jewish intellectual. He left Germany for Paris. Adorno, whose licence to teach had been withdrawn, fled to Oxford and then to New York. Max Horkheimer’s plans had long been in place. In 1933 he moved the Institute for Social Research to Geneva; the following year, with Erich Fromm, he made a deal to establish it at Columbia University.
In Paris, Kracauer and his wife struggled to make ends meet. Like Walter Benjamin, who was also increasingly impecunious, Kracauer spent long periods in the Bibliothèque Nationale. While Benjamin worked on his Arcades Project, a few desks away Kracauer was preparing a biography of Jacques Offenbach. Kracauer wasn’t musical – a fact that Adorno, with typical waspishness, pointed out – but he had a personal investment in his subject: Offenbach was a German Jew who thrived in Paris as he could not at home. More important, historically speaking, were the parallels Kracauer drew between Hitler and Napoleon III. The Nazi slogan ‘Kraft durch Freude’ (‘Strength through joy’) was prefigured in the ethos of the Second Empire. ‘Joy and glamour was also the motto of Louis Napoleon,’ Kracauer wrote. ‘In his zeal, he instituted a ruthless reign of terror directed against all those who might disturb it. Immediately after the coup d’état, tens of thousands of Socialists, republicans and members of secret societies were summarily arrested and sent into exile or deported like criminals.’
The Second Empire and the Third Reich were, however, different in one significant respect: in Paris, ‘Jewish artists could make a name for themselves without obstacles being put in their way.’ Offenbach thrived because he kept the wheels of the musical distraction industry turning. ‘The euphoria had to be perpetual, the nation had to be kept breathless, preventing it from ever having time to come to its senses. The subjects of rule, in turn, desired to be liberated from reality … Louis Napoleon had the incredible good luck to hit upon a society that was looking for a phantasmagoria.’ Hitler, Kracauer theorised, had enjoyed the same good fortune. In 1938, the year after the Offenbach book appeared, he submitted an essay to the Frankfurt School journal in which he argued that terror and Nazi propaganda went hand in hand, the first a violent means of suppressing class antagonisms, the second producing ‘the illusion of the reintegration of the masses’.
Unfortunately, Kracauer’s former lover ended up with the job of editing the essay – and butchered it. ‘I should never have played around with another author’s text like that,’ Kracauer wrote to Adorno. ‘The truth is, you have not edited my manuscript but used it as the basis for a work of your own.’ In line with Frankfurt School policy, Adorno had replaced ‘totalitarian’ with ‘authoritarian’ throughout. Worse, he had made the piece suggest that Nazi propaganda was a ‘reproduction of stupidity’ on a par with advertising in democratic countries, when Kracauer believed nothing of the kind. But he decided not to complain further: he needed the money and, with war approaching, would have to rely in part on Adorno and Horkheimer to get him out of Europe and set him up in New York.
By 1940, Paris was no longer safe for Jews. Before the Nazis entered the city on 14 June, Benjamin and the Kracauers had joined other Jewish refugees in Marseille seeking passage out of Europe. On 25 September, a small group, including Benjamin, set out on foot to cross the Pyrenees. Their aim was to get to Lisbon and from there to New York. They arrived at the Catalan town of Portbou, but were told that the Spanish government had recently closed the border to refugees. The party faced being returned to France – most likely to internment, then transportation to a German concentration camp. Benjamin took an overdose of morphine in his hotel room. The following day the border reopened.
A few days later, the Kracauers tried to cross the Spanish border by train but were sent back to Perpignan, where they learned that Benjamin had killed himself. ‘In Perpignan, we were close to doing the same,’ Kracauer recalled. But a change in Vichy law in November gave foreigners permission to leave, and the couple travelled by train to Lisbon. From there, Kracauer wrote to Adorno on 28 March 1941: ‘Dear Teddie, This is just to let you know that we are hoping to sail on the Nyassa on 15 April … I am arriving as a poor man, poorer than I have ever been.’ He left behind his mother and his beloved aunt Hedwig, both elderly widows – despite repeated efforts, he hadn’t been able to get them out of Frankfurt. They were deported to Theresienstadt and died there or at another death camp. Adorno was more fortunate: his parents had made it to the US. ‘It seems to me,’ Adorno wrote to Horkheimer, whose parents had also escaped, ‘as if all the suffering we are accustomed to thinking of in connection with the proletariat has now been transferred to the Jews in horribly concentrated form.’ Dialectic of Enlightenment scarcely mentions the proletariat in its analysis of ‘why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism’.
In New York, Kracauer reinvented himself as very nearly American. He wrote only in English, in order to attract commissions to review movies for newspapers and magazines. He eulogised Mack Sennett, screwball comedies and American actresses, who embodied ‘a kind of sex appeal unknown in Europe’. He had been in the US for barely a year before writing: ‘It is no longer a European observer who is making these observations.’ But it wasn’t really so. Kracauer was able to discern the Germanic essence of postwar American film noir: ‘The weird, veiled insecurity of life under the Nazis is transferred to the American scene. Sinister conspiracies incubate next door, within the world considered normal – any trusted neighbour may turn into a demon.’ His first review for the Nation was a critique of Dumbo in which he recommended that rather than making faux naturalistic fantasies, Disney should do what Chaplin did and transmute ‘everyday life into fairy tales’.
Kracauer’s expertise was in demand. He was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to analyse Nazi propaganda, and by the Museum of Modern Art to research German cinema. In 1947 he produced the book for which he is best known, From Caligari to Hitler, which attempted to explain the rise of Hitler through Weimar cinema. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) tells the story of a demonic showman who arrives in the town of Holstenwall with his somnambulist assistant, Cesare. At the local fair, Cesare is made to answer questions about the future from an audience, but at night he commits a series of murders at his master’s behest.
The film’s screenwriters, Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, had become pacifists as a result of their experiences in the First World War, and intended the story as an allegory. The German Revolution of 1918-19 was, as they saw it, a revolt against the authoritarian Caligaris who had sent hypnotised young men to engage in pointless slaughter. But in its final form the film inverted the allegory by using a framing device that made the main action of the film appear to be the delusion of a madman. The screenwriters described it as ‘an illicit violation’ that turned their creation ‘into a cliché … in which the symbolism was to be lost’. Kracauer agreed, arguing that the revolutionary screenplay had been made into a conformist film that let Germany’s wartime leaders off the hook. And he went further, interpreting the Caligari story as a premonition of Hitler, with the masses hypnotised into doing evil by Nazi propaganda. Kracauer saw much of Weimar cinema along similar lines. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) was proto-Nazi in its proselytising for a Volksgemeinschaft, a community united by blood and spirit; Lang’s The Nibelungs (1924) was a template for the Nuremberg rallies; and Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Lang’s Dr Mabuse films were proto-projections of the horrors of Nazism.
In 1949, Adorno returned to Germany to re-establish the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Kracauer remained in America. In 1960 he published Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, in which he argued that realism was cinema’s proper mode: film was the trembling reflection of the world in a puddle. The book was derided by Pauline Kael in Sight and Sound. Kracauer, she charged, was
the sort of man who can’t say ‘It’s a lovely day’ without first establishing that it is day, that the term ‘day’ is meaningless without the dialectical concept of ‘night’, that both these terms have no meaning unless there is a world in which day and night alternate, and so forth. By the time he has established an epistemological system to support his right to observe that it’s a lovely day, our day has been spoiled.
Kracauer was worse than a pedant, she said, he was a lunatic to take cinema so seriously. Perhaps Kael was the lunatic for making her own career out of writing about a medium she couldn’t take seriously. In any case, her takedown damaged Kracauer’s reputation in America.
But it was Adorno’s takedown, in ‘The Curious Realist’, that upset Kracauer the most. Adorno described his former lover as a man deeply scarred by life, who had been forced to adapt to difficult times and had come, in America, to an ‘identification with the aggressor’. Kracauer’s thinking, Adorno suggested, had developed as part of his survival strategy. Hence his adoption of a ‘reactive realism’ that ignored reification and ended in the demand for the redemption of reality. Kracauer lashed out: ‘En passant, if external success were an infallible sign of adaptation, the success which you are enjoying at present would betray that to the highest possible degree.’ The exchange makes sad reading: two Holocaust survivors, former friends and onetime lovers, indicting each other for the different ways in which they had adapted to a hostile world.
On 7 October 1966, Adorno sent a postcard to Kracauer from Naples. They had visited the city together in 1925; now Adorno and Gretel were staying at the same hotel. ‘It feels as if those days here in Capri and Positano were yesterday … and in the meantime one has grown old without knowing how this happened.’ A month later, Kracauer died suddenly of pneumonia, aged 77. Adorno’s Negative Dialectics was published the following day. ‘The thought,’ he wrote, ‘that death is quite simply the last thing is unthinkable.’