Nicholas Baer: Siegfried Kracauer & the Historical Film
“Things as They Could Have Happened”:
Siegfried Kracauer and the Historical Film
A Talk by Nicholas Baer
Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies and Philosophy, SUNY Purchase
This presentation will examine how Siegfried Kracauer addressed the relation between history and poetics in his film-theoretical writings. I will argue that insofar as Kracauer came to define the medium’s “basic aesthetic principle” in terms of engagement with the singular and transitory occurrences of physical reality, he obfuscated Aristotle’s opposition between history and poetry, paradoxically locating the poetics of film in its potential as a historian of contemporary life. Notably, however, the genre of the historical film was problematic for Kracauer, given its efforts to visualize a past that is by definition no longer present. Rather than showing “how things actually were,” in Leopold von Ranke’s famous words, the historical film can only envision “things as they could have happened.” An examination of Kracauer’s extensive writings on the historical film will shed new light on his film theory and illuminate significant developments in his thought from Weimar Germany to 1960s New York. Not least, Kracauer’s texts will provide an occasion for considering cinema in relation to historical-philosophical debates on the dissolving distinction between empirical reality and fictional construction, the history and the story, and the true (das Wahre) and the verisimilar (das Wahrscheinliche)—issues of renewed concern in our own “post-truth” era.
Nicholas Baer (PhD, University of California, Berkeley) is Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies and Philosophy at the State University of New York at Purchase. He has published on German cinema, film theory, and the philosophy of history in numerous journals and edited volumes. Together with Anton Kaes and Michael Cowan, he also co-edited The Promise of Cinema: German Film Theory, 1907–1933, which appeared in the Weimar and Now series of the University of California Press and won an Award of Distinction for Best Edited Collection from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. This sourcebook features his translations of writings by Rudolf Arnheim, Béla Balázs, Lotte Eisner, Siegfried Kracauer, László Moholy-Nagy, Hans Richter, Joseph Roth, and Walter Ruttmann. Baer's research has been supported through yearlong fellowships from the Fulbright Program, German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and Leo Baeck Institute/Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes. He is also the recipient of the Karsten-Witte-Preis for best film essay of the year from the Gesellschaft für Medienwissenschaft.