An “accidental image“

Maria Zinfert

The Image of Siegfried Kracauer

Aus: Kracauer. Photographic Archive, S. 11 – 20


He was a Wunderkind and enfant terrible ­according to Walter Benjamin; in “An Outsider Attracts Attention,”1 Benjamin’s 1930 discussion of The Salaried Masses, he is called both, and a “troublemaker” and a “spoilsport” in “one person.” These descriptive ­epithets are not so much intended to identify Siegfried Kracauer’s social position as to emphasize his unorthodox way of working. Kracauer cannot be pinned down to a single discipline: he studied philosophy (with Georg Simmel in Berlin, and others), took a PhD in his main subject of architecture in 1914, and worked for a few years as an architect before starting to earn his living on the staff of the newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung. Between 1921 and 1933 he wrote almost 2,000 articles—news stories, reviews and essays under several acronyms2 “about everything that figured under the rubric of culture, and increasingly areas and topics that did not”3—including his now most famous essay The Mass Ornament and more than 600 film reviews. So Siegfried Kracauer is preeminent among the first generation of critical theorists in regard to film.4

Kracauer certainly had a reputation in the Weimar Republic, and so it was also an open secret as to who was the author of the anonymous novel Ginster. Written by Himself, published in 1928. Kracauer continued to play his game, however, and declared Ginster to be the author of his novel Georg,5 which he worked on from 1929 to 1934. During this time he was transferred to the Berlin office of the Frankfurter Zeitung as head of its features section. When Kracauer and his wife Lili moved from the River Main to the Spree in 1930, Benjamin’s comment was, “It is good for the city to have its enemy within its walls. Let us hope that it will know how to silence him … by making use of him in its own best interests.”6

As we know, this hope was not fulfilled. Immediately after the Reichstag fire on February 28, 1933 Siegfried and Lili Kracauer fled from Berlin to Paris, and when the Frankfurter Zeitung dropped its longstanding editor only a few weeks later he summarized its reasons in his self-description as “Jew and left-winger,”7 an observation that—despite the vagueness of the appellation “left-winger”—is quite untypical of him in its directness. Even in his correspondence Kracauer preferred to describe himself in metaphorical comparisons, for example drawing analogies between himself and literary or historical figures that appear in his writings. He also selected his subject matter according to similarity—a methodological decision that followed the principle of “like recognizes like.” So the central figure of his “social biography” Jacques Offenbach and the Paris of his Time (1937) is the German-Jewish composer Offenbach. When Kracauer compares him with the carefree spirit Ariel, he outlines his own wish not to be spatially or temporally determined. His insistence on extra-territoriality was so continuous and emphatic that his whole life can be interpreted in this light.8 Kracauer’s tendency towards “inconspicuous surface-level expressions” is also reflected in the “irresistible attachment to the surface of life as the place … of least solidification”9 that he attributes to Offenbach. Here can be seen the bright reverse side of the “all-pervading fear of the fixed” that Kracauer singles out in the humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam in his last, uncompleted book History. The Last Things before the Last (posthumously published in 1969):10 “From the angle of the world Erasmus was a fickle customer indeed.”11

It is almost impossible to reduce a flexible thinker like Kracauer to common categories, and so in retrospect one might be tempted to see him as the “missing link between the Frankfurt School and the New York intellectuals.”12 Declaring Kracauer an intermediary between these two established poles would be a mistake, but a position as “missing link” would be appropriate in as much as what he said about Erasmus applied to him too, namely that “his aversion to formulas and recipes … prompted him to keep his ideas, so to speak, in a fluid state; they did not, and could not, jell into an institutionalized program.”13 The right place for such ideas lies in the interstices between the doctrines of an epoch, and within these interstices Kracauer sees an essential but elusive message: “The message I have in mind concerns the possibility that none of the contending causes is the last word on the last issues at stake; and that there is, on the contrary, a way of thinking and living which, if we could only follow it, would permit us to burn through the causes and thus dispose of them – a way which, for lack of a better word, or a word at all, may be called humane.”14

Kracauer, who had been able to escape from Europe with his wife in early 1941, began to publish in English only six months after his arrival in New York, and after a year he was no longer writing from the perspective of a European observer. In his essay “Why France Liked Our Films”15 he addressed an American public as an “American.”16 The studies he published subsequently, From Caligari to Hitler. A Psychological History of the German Film (1947) and Theory of Film. The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960)—two of the most important post-war film books—made him into a leading, if controversial, film theorist in America. This reputation also reached Germany, and when a new edition of his Offenbach biography was being prepared there Kracauer asked not to be introduced as a “film man,” adding “(as for film, it was always only a hobby, a way of making certain sociological and philosophical statements).”17 If this is not simply discounted as an understatement, Kracauer’s intensive involvement with film over many decades was methodologically equivalent to a side issue: “He praised the method, because it attached importance to subsidiary matters and used the back alleys. It was made for detectives.”18 A keen reader of crime fiction, Kracauer was not without good reason once called a “detective of the cinema.”19

The fact that he was dismissed by some film theorists as an all too gullible apologist of realism is consi­dered unproductive by others.20 Theodor W. Adorno must take some blame for this with his portrait “The Curious Realist: On Siegfried Kracauer.” This ambivalent homage on the occasion of Kracauer’s seventy-fifth birthday, in which Adorno says he thought “with an eye that is astonished almost to helplessness,”21 was the subject of several letters between the two in the fall of 1964 in which they conducted a bitter argument that appears to be symptomatic of their tense friendship. Among other things Kracauer accuses Adorno of having misinterpreted his work and thought in the light of a preconceived “theory of adaptation.” Adorno jibes back that Kracauer shows “a tendency … to direct the reception of his concerns and image,” which Kracauer rejects, saying that as a friend he was coming “out of his reserve for once and playing the pilot.”22 The fact that Kracauer had already had misgivings and tried to pilot Adorno is shown in a letter of January 1964 in which he notes that it was quite false to describe him (as in a recently published review in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) as a “stimulator and conveyor of ideas,” and then, recalling his early books Ginster and The Salaried Masses, evokes a very different characterization: “Do you remember what Benjamin wrote about The Salaried Masses? That I went around like a ragpicker—he meant at the dawn of the revolution, hélas.”23

In the letter preceding this one he had brought another figure from his work of the 1930s into play, saying “There’s … a lot of Sancho Panza in me.”24 He is referring to the character who is brought out from the shadow of Don Quixote in Franz Kafka’s “The Truth about Sancho Panza.”25 Siegfried Kracuauer’s last book, History. The Last Things before the Last, closes with a quote from this text in which Sancho Panza is described as a “free man,” a definition that points to a utopian “terra incognita”:

Without making any boast of it Sancho Panza succeeded in the course of years, by devouring a great number of romances of chivalry and adventure in the evening and night hours, in so diverting from his demon whom he later called Don Quixote, that his demon thereupon set out in perfect freedom and the maddest exploits, which, however, for the lack of a preordained object, which should have been Sancho Panza himself, harmed nobody. A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and had of them a great and edifying entertainment to the end.26

An iconic photograph

Among the photographic material in the Kracauer estate there are also some shards of a glass negative. For the exhibition to mark the 100th birthday of Siegfried Kracauer at the Schiller-Nationalmuseum ­Marbach in 1989, these fragments were put together like a jigsaw puzzle and a print taken from the roughly reconstructed negative. This portrait, which was published for the first time in the exhibition catalogue,27 has been widely distributed since then. But Lili and Siegfried Kracauer never saw it, and as such it is not part of their photographic archive.

Not all the shards of the negative were preserved—the print shows that there is an L-shaped piece missing from the upper part—and the edges of the fragments run like fissures through the portrait. What can actually be seen in this now iconic photograph is what the art historian Peter Geimer calls an accidental image. The description is apt, even though the print was deliberately taken from the broken negative. The accidental consists in the breakage of the negative prior to the montage. The image created in this way shows Siegfried Kracauer but also the glass it is made of: “Thanks to an accident, what usually disappears in the transparency of the image carrier has become visible.”28 What this “iconic photograph” makes visible, in that it also unavoidably displays the “real damage to the image carrier,” is the “medium of this visualization itself,” photography. The eye inescapably takes in both “the photographic portrait and the visibility of the material from which it is made.”29 Nonetheless, many interpretations of this portrait ignore the obvious difference between image and image interference. This ranges from misunderstandings such as the description “Siegfried Kracauer behind shattered glass”30 and the idea that Kracauer is reflected here in a broken mirror, to symbolically charged readings that see in the real damage to the image carrier the “fragmented whole, which the theorist of modernism loved so much.”31 Elsewhere the photograph is seen as proof of “how little Kracauer [can be] held by the medium of the visible”: Kracauer seems “to want to escape in the next moment—into the invisible” through the “fissures in the cracked surface.”32 This kind of merging of image and interference sometimes derives from the call to leave an image “made by those involved with [Kracauer]” untouched. The “prosaic explanation” of “montage” is thus dismissed as irrelevant.33

Yet a number of things can be said about this photograph, which has entered the visual memory of Kracauer-readers, on the basis of the existing material. The “original accident”34 must have happened somewhere on the negative’s fifty-year journey from Germany via France to the United States and back to Germany. When the glass plate came to light during preparations for the anniversary exhibition Siegfried Kracauer. 1889–1966, it was in fragments, and these had to be put together in order to find out what was on the negative at all. It is only a small step from this montage to the decision to take a print and secure the image. The result of reconstructing the image carrier is a constructed image of Siegfried Kracauer. The portrait is streaked by many flaws, one of which, a curved black line, cuts Kracauer’s face into two halves diagonally from top to bottom, right through one eye. The traces of damage overlay what is depicted. The gaping L-shaped hole above center entirely disrupts the transparency of the photographic medium.

The originally intended motif of the photograph was only a bust of Kracauer from the central section, as a print taken from the negative plate (when it was still intact) shows. The usual procedure at the time was not to determine the actual image at the shoot but during development in the darkroom. Apart from the original print, the Kracauer photographic archive contains two magazine clippings of the portrait, which Kracauer also submitted for his entry in the Reichshandbuch der Deutschen Gesellschaft of 1930/31.35 The aim of the sitting was apparently to obtain a publishable photograph of the man then known as a journalist on the Frankfurter Zeitung.

The photograph was probably taken earlier, as Kracauer’s appearance, and above all his clothing, ­suggests: Kracauer had discarded the stiff white collar, the dickey and the bow tie before 1930; portraits after this date show him in a three-piece suit and tie. A dating to the second half of the 1920s is also confirmed by Lili Kracauer’s ordering of the archive: the original print was sorted into an envelope labeled in English “Childhood etc,” which contained three other portraits of the young Kracauer along with photographs of him as a youth and child. What the original print conceals comes to light in the one taken from the broken plate, namely the situation in which the photograph was shot: Kracauer sits on a table for a portrait in a typical semi-profile; with his legs crossed, he stabilizes his pose by propping his hands on the tabletop. Not much can be seen of the room, apart from the side of a tall cupboard that casts its shadow onto a wall topped with a transom window. Kracauer is photographed in front of this wall, next to him an oddly folded sheet of white paper. The sparse details indicate that the photograph was not taken in a studio. The situation seems improvised; an amateur was probably at work here. This impression is confirmed by the presence in the Kracauer estate of the negative plate, which a professional studio would have retained. Although it cannot be determined exactly when the sitting took place, an approximate time can be narrowed down. The photograph must have been taken by 1930 at the latest, as this was the year in which Kracauer submitted the portrait, that is, the print of the bust, to the Reichshandbuch der Deutschen Gesellschaft.

In summary it can be said that the iconic photograph goes back to a portrait that Siegfried Kracauer had taken around 1927 in Frankfurt am Main, perhaps in the offices of the Frankfurter Zeitung, and most ­probably by an amateur photographer. In Walter Benjamin’s eyes professional studios were places that “occupied so ambiguous a place between execution and representation, between torture chamber and throne room,”36 and Kracauer certainly saw things similarly. He was extremely suspicious of the gimmicks used by average studio photographers, because they “strive from the beginning not so much to reproduce their subject as to demonstrate all the effects that can be teased out of it.”37 In giving preference to an amateur, Kracauer made sure that his likeness was not abused for the realization of an artistic concept. In this constellation he could gain more control over his public image, and later he was to find the ideal personal photographer in his wife. The photographic interaction between Lili and Siegfried Kracauer over many decades brought about portraits in which “instead of the face being forced into a strange perspective … it is the essence of the person being portrayed that determines the style.”38


1 Walter Benjamin, “An Outsider Attracts Attention,” trans. Quintin Hoare, in Siegfried Kracauer, The Salaried Masses, London, New York 1998, p. 109–114.

2 For the pseudonyms and acronyms used by Kracauer see Thomas Y. Levin, Siegfried Kracauer. Eine Bibliographie seiner Schriften, Marbach am Neckar 1989, p. 18ff. and 
p. 386–388.

3 Miriam Hansen, Cinema and Experience. Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno, 
Berkeley 2012, p. 3f.

4 See Hansen, Cinema and Experience, loc. cit., p. xi. Hansen uses the term “critical theory” in a wider sense, common in the 1960s, which includes the members of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Leo Löwenthal along with thinkers with various connections to Marxist theory, such as Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch and Siegfried Kracauer; furthermore the younger generation of authors, such as Jürgen Habermas, Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge.

5 Excerpts from the manuscript of Georg appeared in 1929 in the Frankfurter Zeitung and the anthology 24 Neue Deutsche Erzähler, edited by Hermann Kesten; in both cases the author was given as “Ginster.” See Levin, Siegfried Kracauer. Eine Bibliographie seiner Schriften, loc. cit., p. 211 and 217. The novel appeared posthumously in 1973, but not until 1977 in a single edition.

6 Walter Benjamin, “Review of Kracauer’s Die Ange­stellten,” in ibid. Selected Writings, vol. 2, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, Cambridge MA 1999, p. 357.

7 “They want to be rid of the Jew and left-winger, nothing more. And I worked eleven years for that,” Kracauer wrote from Paris in April 1933; translated from Ingrid Belke and Irina Renz (compilers), Siegfried Kracauer 1889–1966, Marbacher Magazin 47/1988, Marbach am Neckar 1988, p. 76. 

8 See Martin Jay, “The Extraterritorial Life of Siegfried Kracauer,” in id., Permanent Exiles. Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America, New York 1985.

9 Translated from Siegfried Kracauer, Jacques Offenbach und das Paris seiner Zeit (1937), Frankfurt am Main 1976. These passages are omitted in the English edition.

10 Siegfried Kracauer, History. The Last Things before the Last (1969), completed by Oskar Kristeller, Princeton 1995.

11 Kracauer, History, loc. cit., p. 13. For the autobiographical dimension of Kracauer’s portrait of Erasmus in History. The Last Things before the Last see Philippe Despoix, “Une histoire autre?” in id. and Peter Schöttler (eds.), Siegfried Kracauer. Penseur de l’histoire, Paris 2006, p. 13–28. 

12 For Kracauer’s connection to the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt and the New York intellectuals (such as Hannah Arendt, Clement Greenberg, Robert Warshow) see Johannes von Moltke and Kristy Rawson, Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings. Essays on Film and Popular Culture, Berkeley 2012, p. 12. 

13 See Kracauer, History, loc. cit., p. 11

14 Id., p. 8.

15 Von Moltke and Rawson (eds.), Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings, loc. cit., p. 33–40. (Originally published in National Board of Review Magazine 17, no. 5 (May 1942), 
p. 15–19.) 

16 Von Moltke and Rawson (eds.), Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings, loc. cit., p. 4, 5.

17 Siegfried Kracauer to Wolfgang Weyrauch, letter of June 4, 1962, translated from Belke/Renz, Siegfried Kracauer 1889–1966, loc. cit. p. 118.

18 Translated from Siegfried Kracauer, Ginster, in Werke 
vol. 7, p. 42.

19 Translated from Heide Schlüpmann, Ein Detektiv des Kinos: Studien zu Siegfried Kracauers Filmtheorie, Frankfurt am Main 1998.

20 See Gertrud Koch, Kracauer zur Einführung, Hamburg 1996, introduction.

21 Theodor W. Adorno, “The Curious Realist: on Siegfried Kracauer” (1964), trans. Sherry Weber Nicholson, in New German Critique, no. 54 (1991) 1992, p. 160.

Points of view opposed to Adorno’s description of Kracauer are given in the portraits by Martin Jay, “Kracauer, the Magical Nominalist,” in von Moltke and Rawson (eds.), Siegfried Kracauer’s American Writings, loc. cit., p. 227–235; and Axel Honneth, “Der destruktive Realist. Zum sozialphilosophischen Erbe Siegfried Kracauers,” in id., Vivisektionen eines Zeitalters, Suhrkamp Berlin, 2014, p. 120–142.

22 Letters from October and November 1964, translated from Theodor W. Adorno – Siegfried Kracauer. Briefwechsel 1923–1966, Frankfurt am Main 2008, p. 678, 682, and 689.

23 Translated from ibid., p. 639. Kracauer’s memory is quite precise; in 1930 Benjamin wrote (here in the translation from 1998): “And if we wish to visualize him just for himself, in the solitude of his craft and his endeavor, we see: a ragpicker at daybreak, lancing with his stick scraps 
of language and tatters of speech in order to throw them into his cart, grumblingly, stubbornly, somewhat the worse for drink, and not without now and again letting one or other of these faded calicoes—‘humanity,’ ‘inner nature,’ ‘enrichment’—flutter ironically in the dawn breeze. 
A ragpicker at daybreak—in the dawn of the day of revolution.” Walter Benjamin, “‘An Outsider Attracts Attention’,” 
loc. cit., p. 114.

24 Translated from Theodor W. Adorno – Siegfried Kracauer. Briefwechsel 1923–1966, loc cit., p. 633.

25 Kracauer first wrote about this text in 1931 in his essay Franz Kafka, which he later included in his anthology 
The Mass Ornament, published in 1963. For the importance of the figure of Sancho Panza in Kracauer’s work see Stephanie Baumann, Im Vorraum der Geschichte. Siegfried Kracauers History. The Last Things Before the Last, Konstanz 2014, passim. 

26 Kracauer, History, loc. cit., p. 24f. Kracauer quotes from Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes, New York 1966, p. 179.

27 Belke/Renz, Siegfried Kracauer 1889–1966, loc. cit. 

28 Translated from Peter Geimer, Bilder aus Versehen. Eine Geschichte fotografischer Erscheinungen, Hamburg 2010, p. 9. In the introduction Geimer discusses a view of Paris by the Hungarian photographer André Kertész: the photograph shows both the city and a network of fissures and a black hole. Kertész took a print from its broken glass negative, and called the resulting image Broken Plate.

29 Translated from ibid., p. 67. 

30 This was the caption in Jochen Stöckmann, “Aufklärer aus Passion. Zum 100. Geburtstag von Siegfried Kracauer,” in Hannoversche Allgemeine, February 8, 1989.

31 “Das zersplitterte Ganze, das der Theoretiker der ­Moderne so sehr liebte: Siegfried Kracauer um 1930,” 
caption; Lorenz Jäger, “Freddies oder vielmehr Teddies 
Lehrjahre. Der junge Adorno in Briefen Siegfried Kracauers an ­Leo Löwenthal,” in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 
April 28, 2003.

32 Translated from Inka Mülder-Bach, “Schlupflöcher. Die Diskontinuität des Kontinuierlichen im Werk Siegfried ­Kracauers,” in Michael Kessler and Thomas Y. Levin, Siegfried Kracauer. Neue Interpretationen. Tübingen 1989, p. 263f. 

33 Translated from Jacques Revel, “Siegfried Kracauer et le monde d’en bas (Présentation),” in L’histoire. Des ­avant-dernières choses, ed. Nia Perivolaropoulou and Philippe Despoix, Paris 2006, p. 9f. 

34 For the definition of the original accident in the medium of photography see Geimer, Bilder aus Versehen, loc. cit., p. 61.

35 Imperial Manual of German Society. 

A reproduction of the print from the broken glass negative appears on the cover of Siegfried Kracauer 1889–1966, Marbacher Magazin 47/1988; the photograph is commented on the back as follows: “Siegfried Kracauer / photograph from 1930 / the section in the envelope reproduces the portrait that Kracauer gave to the ‘Reichshandbuch der Deutschen Gesellschaft’ for 1930.” This was the two-volume Reichshandbuch der Deutschen Gesellschaft – Das Handbuch der Persönlichkeiten in Wort und Bild [Imperial Manual of German Society – The Manual of Personalities in Word and Image], Berlin 1930/31.

36 Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” trans. Rodney Livingstone and others, in id. Selected Writings, vol. 2, Cambridge MA 1999, p. 515. 

37 Siegfried Kracauer, “A Note on Portrait Photography,” in Philippe Despoix, Maria Zinfert (eds.) The Past’s ­Threshold, Berlin 2014, p. 59. Originally appeared in Frankfurter ­Zeitung February, 1933.

38 Ibid., p. 61

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Maria Zinfert

Maria Zinfert

arbeitet in Berlin als freie Autorin, Herausgeberin und Übersetzerin. Sie promovierte über die Romane von Victor Segalen und hat mehrere seiner Texte ins Deutsche übertragen. Sie forscht derzeit über Archivfotos deutschsprachiger Autorinnen und Autoren des 20. Jahrhunderts und hat bereits mehrere Beiträge zu den Fotografien aus Kracauers Nachlass veröffentlicht.

Weitere Texte von Maria Zinfert bei DIAPHANES
Maria Zinfert (Hg.): Kracauer. Photographic Archive

Maria Zinfert (Hg.)

Kracauer. Photographic Archive

Mit Fotografien von Elisabeth Kracauer und Siegfried Kracauer

Gebunden, 256 Seiten

PDF, 256 Seiten

The photography book "Kracauer. Photographic Archive" is a collection of previously unpublished photographic material from the estate of the sociologist, journalist and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer. Portrait, city and landscape photographs give insights into the life of the writer and his wife Elisabeth, known as Lili – a life marked by flight and exile. The photographic portraits of Kracauer from the 1930s on were all taken by his wife, while prints, contact sheets, rolls of film and written material reveal that Kracauer took pictures himself, too. Neither Kracauer nor his wife was a professional photographer, yet their photos testify to the aesthetic and technical achievements of their collaborative photographic practice: the eye of the great photography theorist combined with that of the art historian and observant, self-taught photographer Lili Kracauer. The book also tells the story of Lili and Siegfried Kracauer’s close working relationship – from the early 1930s following their marriage in Germany, to exile in Paris and the war and post-war years in the USA.