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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography


Jörg Später

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To purchase Kracauer

Title: Kracauer
Author: Jörg Später
Genre: Biography
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 457 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Kracauer - US
Kracauer - UK
Kracauer - Canada
Kracauer - Deutschland
  • A Biography
  • German title: Kracauer
  • Translated by Daniel Steuer

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid biography; a fascinating life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 17/6/2021 Stuart Jeffries
New Left Review . 9-10/2017 Esther Leslie
Süddeutsche Zeitung . 25/10/2016 Thomas Meyer
Die Zeit . 24/11/2016 Alexander Cammann

  From the Reviews:
  • "Der Freiburger Historiker Jörg Später legt mit 741 Seiten nicht nur eine umfassende, sondern auch inhaltlich schwergewichtige Biografie vor. Einige gute Nachrichten vorneweg: Jörg Später kann schreiben - kein Jargon, kein technisches Distanzvokabular, stattdessen aktive Teilnahme am Lebens- und Denkprozess des Helden. Zudem überrascht der Biograf mit gegen Klischees gebürsteten Urteilen, die von guten Gründen ausgehen. (...) Jörg Später kann aber auch darstellen, verweigert sich naheliegenden Gewichtungen, verliert sich auch mal in Details, ohne die großen Linien aus den Augen zu verlieren. (...) Jörg Späters "soziale Biographie" von Siegfried Kracauer ist alles in allem ein Glücksfall." - Thomas Meyer, Süddeutsche Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) is best-known as a film critic and theorist, but was also a prominent journalist, a sociologist, and wrote several novels; as Jörg Später's biography notes, he actually trained as an architect and occasionally (if apparently reluctantly) worked as one as well. He had successful careers both in Germany and then, switching to writing in English, in the United States after he emigrated during the Second World War. Surprisingly, however, despite his collected works having been re-published several times in German, this is the first full-length biography of the man -- all the more surprising because he is not only a significant figure in his own right but was very close to several others (notably Theodor W. Adorno, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Benjamin), and his life-story offers a fascinating account of the (specifically but not solely Jewish) German-intellectual experience before the war, and then the emigrant experience after, i.e. it's a pretty darn good story too.
       With somewhat limited information available about Kracauer's early life, Später relies on Kracauer's two early novels, Ginster (1928) and Georg (written in the 1930s, but not published until 1977) to round out some of the detail -- perhaps a bit of a stretch, but for the most part reasonable enough in giving insight into Kracauer's early years. (In any case, it helpfully gives the reader some sense of Kracauer's fiction, too -- though, while Ginster remains untranslated, Georg was published in a translation by Carl Skoggard in 2016.) Early on, he seemed very much to be struggling to find purpose; intellectually curious, he explored a great deal -- looking also for mentors and others with similar broad interests to engage in exchanges of thought; Später reports on the satisfaction when he finally: "found someone with whom he could 'symphilozophize', as he would later refer to reading, thinking and interpreting with others".
       Georg Simmel was an early influence, but stronger ones would be the close friendships he formed with other thinkers, Später noting how important friendship and human connection was to Kracauer -- clearly often lonely in his youth. So also, early on, he suggests: "Simmel studied the fabric of society through the concepts of 'the stranger' or money, Kracauer now chose 'friendship'". The central friendships included those with a much younger progidy, Theodor W. Adorno -- variously called here 'Wiesengrund', 'Adorno', 'Teddie' etc. in what seems to be an attempt to place where he was at various stages in his life but which feels a bit unnecessarily complicating -- and Leo Löwenthal. And, for example, Adorno reports how early on in their relationship:

For years Kracauer read the Critique of Pure Reason regularly on Saturday afternoon with me. I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say I owe more to this reading than to my academic teachers. Exceptionally gifted as a pedagogue, Kracauer made Kant come alive for me.
       Ernst Bloch was another figure in these circles -- though Kracauer's scathing appraisal of Bloch's Thomas Münzer (and Bloch's reaction) complicated matters some. Finally, Walter Benjamin was another figure who interacted extensively with this group, all of them in frequent exchange of ideas and comments on each other's work.
       Kracauer published extensively, in various periodicals, but long found a place at the Frankfurter Zeitung. Among his colleagues there was, for a while, Joseph Roth -- who judged:
He has a clever and ironical mind, with no imagination, but in spite of all his awareness he remains, in a likeable way, naïve.
       Roth was also supportive -- as, for example with Kracauer's first novel:
In December, the S.Fischer Verlag announced in the Börsenblatt: 'This, too, was the war ! Just out: the new novel Ginster. Written by himself.' And below: 'Who is Ginster ? Ginster in the war, that is: Chaplin in the department store.' Roth had written the text for the advertisement.
       The mutual appreciation society was quite remarkable: despite the occasional critical outlier -- Kracauer on Thomas Münzer -- it was mainly supportive; as Später notes, it showed: "just how much the review business in the Weimar era was dominated by networking". While Kracauer had problems with this, it seems to have been near-inescapable; at least one positive aspect is that it made for an atmosphere of constant engagement with each other's writings and thought, which Kracauer also seems to have thrived on. Meanwhile, for all the mutual reviewing and the like, it did not lead to great financial success for any in his circle .....
       Mass-culture was always of great interest to Kracauer -- so also his continuing fascination with film as it evolved -- but his first book on the subject focused on popular fiction, his: "metaphysics of the detective novel", Der Detektiv-Roman. A study of the worker, Die Angestellten (1930) -- finally translated in 1998, as The Salaried Masses -- also attracted considerable attention (not all positive). If Kracauer was certainly a recognized figure by then, none of his books really allowed for a breakthrough, much less actual financial security.
       Später describes the difficulty of life in the Weimar era well -- as then he does the changes as the Nazis consolidated power. Kracauer continued to write for the Frankfurter Zeitung, but the newspapers were also struggling in these times. A change of ownership helped shore up the finances, but times continued to be difficult -- and, of course, were made increasingly difficult for anyone with Jewish connections, and while not observant, Kracauer was indeed a Jew.
       Kracauer did move to Paris in 1933 already, but found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Among his ideas was to write a book on Jacques Offenbach -- a more commercial proposition, he seemed to think: "Kracauer hoped that Offenbach would buy him a year of freedom". While it did appear in numerous translations -- Knopf brought it out in the US (having paid $250 for the rights) --, it did not sell particularly well, the German edition shifting only 1111 copies in the first six months, for example, well below expectations. As Später sums up: "Kracauer's tales had found their way onto the boulevard and were acclaimed -- but they did not earn him any money".
       The book written for a popular audience -- and, so Später: "more of an epic piece of writing than even his novels" -- also did not find the approval of his intellectual friends, including Walter Benjamin. Adorno's reaction, in particular is striking:
No, if Kracauer really does identify with this book, then he has definitely erased himself from the list of writers to be taken at all seriously. And I am myself seriously considering whether or not I should break off relations with him. For to carry on as before would almost be even more of an offence: it would mean that nothing he does can move you.
       In 1930 Kracauer had married Elisabeth 'Lili' Ehrenreich, whom he had first met a few years earlier; she worked at the Institute for Social Research (though giving up the position when she married). Später does make clear what a close union it was -- "They became a 'We. Inc.', with roles that were clearly divided up along patriarchal lines" -- but she remains very much in the background in this biography and it would have been interesting to learn more about her, and her interactions with Kracauer. (The transition from the close relationship with Adorno -- apparently not acted out upon, but certainly more than just in the air -- is also an interesting aspect of both their lives and might have warranted more exploration as well.)
       The difficult years in France are well described -- as is then the tightening noose as the war began, with Kracauer and his wife not escaping before the German invasion of France, and having considerable difficulty in finally getting beyond the reach of the Nazis. While lucky to have good connections in the US, the wait was a long one -- shared, in Marseilles, with Walter Benjamin, where they: "met almost daily". Both Benjamin and Kracauer were on the list of 1,800 cases that Varian Fry undertook to help get to America; as is, the Kracauers sailed from Lisbon on 15 April 1941.
       Kracauer immediately took to the United States -- or rather, specifically New York -- but money continued to be a problem. One early position he got was as an assistant to the curator at the Museum of Modern Art, researching German film propaganda. This subject was one he continued to engage with, culminating in his From Caligari to Hitler (1947), a book Später describes as: "idiosyncratic and original, one-dimensional and focused, suggestive and innovative. But most of all it is an aggressive settling of scores with the evil homeland". So also Eric Bentley, in his review of it in The New York Times Book Review would call it the : "revenge of a refugee".
       Once again, the book did little to alleviate the Kracauers' financial situation: "'I was financially never worse off here than I am now', he admitted in 1947". Später helpfully chronicles just how down and out Kracauer long was: "Between 1941 and 1946, Kracauer earned no more than $4,500, less than $1,000 per year", and: "between 1945 and 1950, he earned between $735 and $1,338, with an annual average of just above $1,000" Ah, the life of the intellectual .....
       Kracauer did manage to settle down quite well, and played a prominent role as a film critic. Später also describes the Krakauers' returns to Europe -- just for visits -- as well as the interesting (successful) efforts to get compensation for his losses in being forced to leave Germany.
       Kracauer is a solid biography, and much of the material is fascinating: Kracauer was close to many of the leading German intellectuals of his time, and his personal story, including his escape from Nazi Germany (as well as the fates of those in his family who could not escape) and some of the other descriptions of the times he lived through are gripping. There is a sense of some of the personal missing, not least in his obviously close relationship with his wife, while Später also perhaps does not give enough of a sense of much of the writings (including the voluminous newspaper film-criticism); those new to Kracauer's writings may feel a bit at sea here, finishing the book with only a slightly firmer impression of Kracauer's thought and writings than going in.
       Später does occasionally indulge in bits like: "I imagine K.'s gaze moves towards Lili, still sleeping", the sort of embellishment that can feel jarring in what is, after all, meant to be a (true-to-)life account, but for the most part he presents his material well -- well-founded and clearly. He's stronger on facts than interpretation, and so the biography is at its weakest where the facts seem hard to come by -- mostly the personal family stuff, both Kracauer's married life and his youth -- but overall this is certainly a very sound and well-constructed, on its supporting materials, life-story. And Kracauer's really was quite a fascinating life.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 January 2021

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Kracauer: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German author Jörg Später was born in 1966.

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© 2021 the complete review

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