In the crowded field of German novels published in 1928 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the end of World War I, it might have been easy to miss Siegfried Kracauer’s Ginster, which first appeared in installments in the Frankfurter Zeitung that spring. A few months later the paper’s main competitor, the Vossische Zeitung, began serializing another war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, thereby launching Erich Maria Remarque’s literary career. The author of Ginster, by contrast, remained hidden behind his fictional protagonist. The serialized version was titled “Fragments of a Novel” but withheld the author’s identity: “By ***.” The book was subsequently marketed as Ginster. Written by himself.*
Picking up on this game of hide-and-seek, the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth titled his glowing review “Who Is Ginster?” Although Roth preserved the author’s anonymity, many of the literati of the late Weimar era would have known who wrote this wryly ironic tale of a young man fumbling his way through the war years. By 1928 Kracauer was the Frankfurter Zeitung’s chief film critic and a formidable presence in literary and intellectual circles. His sparring partners included his friends Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, and Margarete Susman, but also novelists like Roth and influential thinkers such as Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and others arrayed around the influential rabbi Nehemias Anton Nobel. His byline graced a stream of reports and reviews, and he became known as the author of important cultural essays as well as a pioneering study of white-collar workers, The Salaried Masses (1930).
Forced into exile by the Nazis, he eventually wrote influential books on cinema, including From Caligari to Hitler (1947), a “psychological history” that scrutinized Weimar film for premonitions of fascism, and Theory of Film (1960), a celebration of the cinema’s ability to “redeem” physical reality. The posthumous publication of History: The Last Things Before the Last (1969) and another novel, Georg—a sequel of sorts to Ginster (1973)—added to the vast body of writing that Kracauer left behind. His collected works now span sixteen volumes in the definitive Suhrkamp edition. Some of these were originally written in English during the years Kracauer spent as a German émigré in the United States; others are becoming available piecemeal in translation. Our growing familiarity with them, however, has not been matched by knowledge about the author who would occasionally hide behind his fictional alter egos, albeit in plain sight. Any overview of Kracauer’s life must contend with the elusiveness of its subject.
The play with identity is more than a feature of one novel’s publication history. Hiding, indeed dissolving, the markers of identity and personality is one of Ginster’s central concerns. Ginster is not even the character’s real name. He seeks to live “incognito,” to explore wartime society “subterraneously.” Caught up in the collective excitement at the outbreak of war in 1914, Ginster always seems to stand to the side and hope to be overlooked. Rather than join the masses, he devises ways of evading conscription. Demoted to the kitchen, he eventually contributes to the war effort by “peeling potatoes against the enemy.” But he cannot abide life in the barracks and decides to “hunger himself away” as a means of getting sent back to the home front.
Moving from Munich to Frankfurt and eventually to the Northern Provinces over the course of the story, Ginster stands apart from the antiheroes of pacifist war novels like Remarque’s. His terrain is not the pockmarked landscapes of the front but the trenches that open up during wartime even in civilian life. Consequently, the language of the novel is not that of a disillusioned patriot’s war trauma but the quizzical irony of a compatriot who skewers the ideological pronouncements of the day.
For this task, Ginster favors anonymity over any attributable, recognizable selfhood. Attending a lecture, “The Reasons for the Great War,” by the pompous professor Caspari (a thinly veiled and unflattering portrait of the philosophical anthropologist Max Scheler), he measures the distance between the professor’s grandiose rhetoric of national essences and his own lack of any corresponding individual essence: “He looked into himself: no essential nature there, only the thought that in four days he would have to enlist.” When he does so, he becomes nameless in a historical sense, just another recruit in a war that sent millions of men to their deaths.
In a philosophical sense, Ginster joins the ranks of the modern subject unsettled and deindividualized by industrialization and urbanization. Kracauer keenly recognized the losses incurred in these processes, but also the promises they contained. As he tracks his hapless hero across the war years, he exploits the ambiguities of anonymity, gleefully exploring the loss of self as the intimation of a new kind of subjectivity. Characters in the novel do not speak so much as they are spoken (“words took possession of Otto”) and are cut adrift from history as it
whooshed incorporeally over human beings. Ginster shivered from a feeling of abandonment; he encountered himself neither here, beneath the lamp, nor over there, in the rustlings of World History. How empty, in between.
Rather than seek to fill the emptiness, whether with patriotism or human connection, Ginster more than once dreams of evaporating: “I’d really like to dribble away to nothing.” In its exploration of unmoored subjectivity (“he might even float up into the sky like a free balloon”), the novel—translated with just the right touch of irreverence by Carl Skoggard—joins the great modernist attempts to craft new figures from the ravages of the early twentieth century, from Franz Kafka’s K. to Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities to the New Women of Irmgard Keun’s late Weimar novels.
The most apt comparison, though, is arguably not literary but cinematic, as befits the work of a film critic turned novelist. In more ways than one, Ginster resembles one of Kracauer’s favorite film characters, Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, who was a touchstone of his writing and thinking about identity. Roth explicitly compared Ginster at war with the Tramp in a department store. The two characters’ deep kinship can also be gleaned from Kracauer’s reviews of films like Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, where he zeroes in on a void at the center of the tramp persona:
He has no will; where others have a drive toward self-preservation or a greed for power, he harbors nothing but an emptiness as blank as the snowfields of Alaska. Other people have a consciousness of themselves and live in human relations; his self has gone astray, and for this reason, he cannot participate in so-called life. He is a hole into which everything falls; all that is normally conjoined shatters into its constitutive parts when it impacts in his depths.
For Kracauer, such loss of self is cause for celebration, not lament. Chaplin models nothing less than “the humane” precisely when he strips a figure like the Tramp of any dreams of identity, omnipotence, or “will.” When it came to understanding culture, society, and what it means to be human, slapstick was a better guide than philosophy, and surface-level expressions, urban space, and sundry inanimate objects could reveal more about the world than idealist pronouncements. From his earliest urban miniatures to his magisterial Theory of Film, the yardstick for Kracauer remained experience, an openness to the minutiae of reality. As he noted in a long essay on his teacher the sociologist Georg Simmel, “the core of mankind’s essence is accessible through even the smallest side door.”
While drawing on Chaplin and American slapstick more broadly, Kracauer also poured more than a bit of himself into his protagonist in Ginster, just as he went on to do in Georg. So close are the biographical and the fictional subject that Jörg Später’s 2020 biography—the first of Kracauer, originally published in Germany in 2016, half a century after his death, and ably translated by Daniel Steuer—draws liberally on passages from the two novels. Setting them off in italics and with all due circumspection, Später uses the language of fiction to flesh out aspects of Kracauer’s early years for which the archival record yields fewer details.
Thus we learn of Kracauer’s overbearing yet mostly absent father by way of Ginster’s filial reflections; the fictional protagonist’s ironic detachment from wartime society becomes a reference point for Kracauer’s own growing disenchantment with the war effort; and Georg’s desire to enter public life represents Kracauer’s entry into journalism and the intellectual debates of the 1920s. But perhaps even more to the point, Ginster’s play with concealment prefigures Kracauer’s lifelong reticence. Even at the height of his professional success as a Berlin correspondent for the cultural section of the Frankfurter Zeitung, he wrote to Adorno that “the best thing one can do is to move anonymously through the anonymous crowds.”
A subject who prizes anonymity presents a challenge for any biographer, as Adorno learned when he sought to sketch Kracauer’s portrait for a radio address in 1964. In the protracted and tense exchange of letters around this event, Kracauer asked Adorno and the radio station to refrain from mentioning his age. The request seems absurd, given that the address was conceived to mark his seventy-fifth birthday. To preempt any pushback, Kracauer explained that he harbored an
old and deeply rooted need to live extra-territorially—as regards the intellectual climate as well as chronological time. That is why New York suits me, as it makes this extra-territorial existence possible—and that is why I seek to escape chronological labelling. It is not as if I were concerned with appearing young or younger; it is merely the aversion to being torn away from chronological anonymity by the fixing of the date and the inevitable connotations of such fixing.
This fear of the fixed, which Kracauer would often project onto the subjects he wrote about (whether fictional like Ginster or historical like Erasmus of Rotterdam), indicates a certain defensiveness even as it heralds an embrace of fluidity, of the ephemeral, and of the anonymity afforded by modern mass culture. Such a paradoxical stance could throw off a biographer, but Später recognizes that it constitutes a central motif in Kracauer’s life. Even as he finally extricates Kracauer from the long shadow cast by the Frankfurt School and allows him to emerge in his own right as an original figure, Später emphasizes the struggle to assert and hold onto any identity. The Kracauer we come to know through his meticulous archival work “was extremely idiosyncratic, never allowed himself to be pinned down, always said ‘maybe’ when others demanded or pronounced a loud and clear ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
Später charts Kracauer’s path through overlapping friendships and intellectual circles rather than making his subject representative of this or that intellectual school to which he may have contributed—whether philosophical anthropology; phenomenology; Marxism; the Frankfurt School, in whose orbit Kracauer moved but to which he never belonged; the New York intellectuals, with whom he interacted as a German émigré without ever gaining complete access to their influential circles; or a particular branch of cinema studies and film theory, which he helped inaugurate as a self-effacing mediator from the margins.
While there can no longer be any doubt of Kracauer’s place in twentieth-century intellectual history, it is no easier to describe his profession than it is to label the forms of his thinking. An architect by training, he only dabbled in that career for a few years, writing a dissertation on ornamental ironworks and designing a cemetery for soldiers who were “once and for all prevented from returning home,” as Ginster deadpans. A speech defect kept Kracauer from public lecturing, and a professorship was never in the cards. During the Weimar Republic, he worked for one of Germany’s major newspapers, but can we call Kracauer a journalist? Was he in fact a film critic? His film reviews in particular take up three volumes of his collected works, yet some of the writings for which he is best remembered are works of philosophical and cultural criticism.
In many ways ahead of his time, Kracauer modeled nuanced analyses of popular culture in justly famous essays on photography, urban spaces, and what he called “The Mass Ornament.” The latter, which was also the title of a collection of these writings published in 1963, anticipates motifs that members of the Frankfurt School developed over the following decades. Yet it would be as wrong to think of Kracauer as a philosopher as to claim that he was a sociologist because he wrote an early study of that discipline. And even though his books on cinema have become canonical, he similarly strove to distance himself from too close an association with the film medium, claiming that his real interests always lay elsewhere and that film was only a “pretext” for speaking about other things. At the end of his life he was writing the book on history, though historians, with a few notable exceptions, remain slow to recognize it as belonging to their field.
A recent collection has added another facet to our understanding of Kracauer. Selected Writings on Media, Propaganda, and Political Communication assembles some previously inaccessible or hard-to-find texts on totalitarian propaganda, advertising, and social science methodology (among other subjects). The editors make the case that Kracauer was an early theorist of mass communications, one prescient enough to have foreseen the rhetorical and media strategies of a resurgent populist right.
And yet one senses the strain as they attempt in the introduction to synthesize these writings with Kracauer’s other works. The editors claim that these texts pick up and develop themes such as “the fate of the modern individual” and the political role of modern mass, or popular, culture by deploying “modes of dialectical critique.” Such claims are true enough in a very broad sense but fail to synthesize much that is specific to Kracauer or to distill a stance that would be distinctively his. For Kracauer’s was a voice that constantly adapted to changing situations—he switched entirely from German to English with his move to the United States. It is a voice that can seem almost chameleonesque when he attempts to mimic the language and protocols of “qualitative content analysis” or other postwar American academic pursuits. Kracauer spoke in various registers, and the same is true of his work across genres and disciplines. One is tempted to conclude that his writings cannot be synthesized but rather exist “side by side” in their multiplicity, an arrangement he extolled in writing about history at the end of his life.
Although Kracauer was hardly averse to helping shape the reception of his work (the meticulous organization of his papers seemed ready-made for the German literary archive in Marbach that now houses them), he just as gleefully piled up obstacles for future biographers. In addition to his refusal to be pinned down, these include going on record against biography as a genre. In a 1930 article on this “art form of the new bourgeoisie,” as he labeled it, Kracauer argued that biography merely buttresses the ideology of individuality in an age when individuals had long since become powerless to effect social or historical change. “If there is a confirmation of the end of individualism,” he wrote, “it can be glimpsed in the museum of great individuals” to which a recent glut of biographies amounted. But if some would respond by seeking to muster solidarity in collectives, Kracauer took the opposite route, as if to outrun the loss of individuality by giving it up. The only path forward that he could discern was modeled by a recent biography of Leon Trotsky, in which the individual “has already been superseded, in that it does not claim to have a reality of its own but becomes real only through its transparency with regard to reality.”
In view of his misgivings about the genre of biography, it seems ironic at best that Kracauer went on to write one himself. Under the strain of exile in France, where he spent eight years before barely escaping to New York in 1941, he turned to Jacques Offenbach, the operetta, and the same nineteenth-century Paris that so captivated the imagination of Walter Benjamin. But instead of writing reams of notes about Baudelaire, the arcades, and the figure of the flaneur, Kracauer chose an individual artist. Offenbach became for him an instrument for refracting a social situation not unlike his own: a figure who moved between margin and center as society danced on a volcano. Offenbach was no Trotsky, to be sure, but Kracauer’s goal here, too, was to render the biographical by making it “transparen[t] with regard to reality.” His solution was to write what he called a “social biography” that could offer a model for the present.
Später in turn models his biography on Kracauer’s Offenbach by using his subject to trace the “correspondences” among otherwise disparate social domains. Without ever losing sight of Kracauer’s idiosyncrasies—his “ego’s suffering” (Ich-Leiden), the precarity of his many pursuits, but also his powers of observation and his commitment to experience over theory—Später takes us into the cultural and intellectual circles that vied for attention in post–World War I Frankfurt. From there, we move to Berlin in the early 1930s, where we reconnect with Benjamin and encounter Bertolt Brecht, among others.
The day after the Reichstag was set ablaze on February 27, 1933, Kracauer and his wife Elisabeth (Lili) fled Germany, and we see Paris from the perspective of a down-and-out émigré whose astute commentary leaves no doubt about the abiding threat of fascism across Europe. In a slightly incongruous chapter that channels Kafka’s The Trial and suddenly delves into Kracauer’s thoughts in the first person (“I imagine K. is trying to calm himself”), Später creatively reconstructs the depths of the Paris exile’s despair before he traces what Kracauer labeled his “last station”: the world of émigré intellectuals in Manhattan, who helped shape the empirical social sciences in their collective effort to identify, define, understand, and fight the enemy they had barely managed to escape.
If there is one theme that Später privileges and that connects the times and places of this biography, it is the sociability of friendship. Kracauer wrote early and repeatedly about this theme, and although he was no easy friend to anyone, he cultivated lasting relationships with many. Of particular interest to Später is what he calls the “philosophical quartet” of Kracauer, Benjamin, Bloch, and Adorno. These four met regularly in Frankfurt, where their paths first crossed in the early 1920s and continued to intersect over the course of their lives. They formed a German-Jewish “thought collective” outside of the academy, reading each other’s work, critiquing drafts and publishing reviews of completed books, bickering behind each other’s backs in copious letters, and picking up theoretical motifs from one another to develop in their own respective idioms: Benjamin in his theologically tinged Marxism, Adorno in his negative dialectics, Bloch in his utopian dialectics, and Kracauer in his wry, ironic feuilletons.
While the traces of these friendships are preserved in mutual theoretical references across published works, they remain most palpable in the letters the friends exchanged. For his biography, Später consulted Kracauer’s immense correspondence, from which it is possible to reconstruct in great detail the issues and concerns that animated him on any given day. What Später cannot render—since they would (and do) take up as much space as the voluminous biography itself—are the nuances and cadences of such correspondences, which run the gamut from stormy declarations of love to sullen estrangement to strident disagreements.
For those who wish to delve deeper into intellectual friendships such as these, there is perhaps no better place to start than the almost half-century-long correspondence between Kracauer and Adorno, now available in Susan Reynolds and Michael Winkler’s accessible English translation. A contribution to twentieth-century intellectual history in its own right, the volume documents the full arc of the two men’s friendship, from Kracauer’s first surviving letter to Adorno of April 5, 1923 (“These past two days 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”), to Adorno’s penultimate missive of October 7, 1966, in which he reminisces fondly about a trip they took together to Naples some forty years earlier (“and in the meantime one has grown old without knowing how this happened”).
Along the way, they weave in and out of early libidinal entanglements that recur under only a thin fictional veneer in Kracauer’s Georg, where the character Freddie stands in for “Teddie” Adorno. Any reader of the full correspondence cannot help but view the exchanges that follow over the decades in light of the erotic charge of these first letters and conclude that the friendship preserved that charge, even if by repressing it. This might explain not only the kind gestures and openings that occasionally creep back into the letters from the 1950s onward, but even more the recriminations and scathing critiques of each other’s decisions, attitudes, and writings over the years.
Some of these rifts have material consequences, as when the two spar over publication or reviews of Adorno’s and others’ writings in the Frankfurter Zeitung or over Kracauer’s work in exile more generally. From his Paris years, two spats stand out in this regard. The first concerns his Offenbach. Outraged by both the form and the content of Kracauer’s “social biography,” Adorno almost ended their friendship, complaining both directly in a letter of May 13, 1937, to Kracauer (on the heels of an even more biting letter about the Offenbach book to Benjamin a week earlier) that the book was a sellout in its “conformism,” its “contempt for humanity,” and its “compulsion to destroy.” The second falling out came after Kracauer wrote a book-length essay on fascist propaganda that same year, which again fell short of Adorno’s standards. As we learn from these letters, he consequently refused the essay for publication in the flagship journal of the Institute for Social Research in its New York exile, leaving Kracauer both deflated and enraged.
So angry was Kracauer that despite his desperate financial situation, he refused further cooperation with the institute unless he was invited expressly to enter “through the front door, wide open, and be received with full honours.” Although Adorno returned to Germany after the war to rebuild the institute in Frankfurt together with Max Horkheimer, Kracauer harbored deep suspicions about the Germans and never considered going back. As the correspondence attests, Adorno interceded with German publishers on Kracauer’s behalf and established contacts with some of his students and colleagues, and the collected works have provided comprehensive access to his wide-ranging oeuvre. Yet Kracauer never was invited into the Frankfurt Institute—whether through the front door, as he had demanded, or through a side door that would have been better suited to his intellectual proclivities. This was rectified symbolically in the spring of 2022, when the institute dedicated a major international conference to his life and work.
But Kracauer’s changing image in the English-speaking world is at least as significant as his canonization in Frankfurt, lending additional contours to the émigré who acquired American citizenship at the first opportunity and remained in the US until his death in 1966 at the age of seventy-seven. Though he became well known to succeeding generations of film students and cinephiles on both sides of the Atlantic, Kracauer always retained some of the anonymity that Ginster prizes. The new collections and translations of his work, his correspondence, and his biography, then, do not so much rescue him from obscurity as allow us to see the desire for both recognition and anonymity as aspects of his life’s work, and indeed of who Kracauer was. .
This article draws on my previous research on Kracauer, including for my afterword to Carl Skoggard’s forthcoming translation of Ginster. We owe much of our knowledge of the novel’s publishing history to the meticulous work of Inka Mülder-Bach and Sabine Biebl. See their editorial notes in Siegfried Kracauer, Werke, Vol. 3: Romane und Erzählungen (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2004). ↩