Film versus Fascism, 100 Years On
What Siegfried Kracauer’s Political Theory Says About Our Present
by Drehli Robnik
Fatty Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand in the film Fatty & Mabel Adrift (1916)
Roughly 100 years ago, Siegfried Kracauer wrote his first statements on fascism simultaneously with his first texts on film.(1) At a time when the Italian fascists’ so-called “march on Rome” makes Mussolini the country’s prime minister, while Hitler rallies the most aggressive factions of the national right in Munich’s Bierkellern, there are the first mentions of fascist and Nazi activities in Kracauer’s daily newspaper articles on social and intellectual (mainly literary and philosophical) life. At the time he uses fascism as the main point of reference: spelling it “Fascismus” (as opposed to the German spelling “Faschismus” prevalent from the late 1930s onwards), he mentions, and attacks, the “deutsch-völkischen Fascismus” of the “Hitler-people [Hitlerleute]” and a “blindly raving revanchist nationalism,” which he compares to an epidemic disease (and even the “terror” spread by “amerikanischen Fascistentum” as described in Upton Sinclair’s 1919 novel Jimmie Higgins) – all that in Frankfurter Zeitung articles from early 1923. At the same time, he reviews all sorts of films, and offers some remarkable interpretations of slapstick (“Burleske”) and action movies (“Sensationsstücke”) featuring Fatty Arbuckle or Carlo Aldini, among others: in a string of reviews from the end of 1923 (predating his late-1920s pieces on Charlie Chaplin’s ego-less post-humanism), he values a crude type of body-focused action cinema for ironically highlighting reality as a problem, with the films testifying to a presence of “nothingness” as the driving force of a rationalized, highly dynamic capitalist society (the Fordist way) – which, at this early stage in his work, Kracauer sees as based on emptiness and nothingness, and ultimately as a world that is unreal.
The ambiguous demos
The parallelism of Kracauer’s writings on film and on fascism is, of course, not just coincidence, not even at this early stage. One might go so far as to see the two thematic lines unfolding from a condensation of film and nationalist popular mobilization as the topics of Kracauer’s second-ever film review: writing about the “Großfilm Danton” in the FZ of June 1, 1921, he focuses on the images of an easily manipulated, yet violent and threatening Parisian mob, stating that the most valuable thing about this big budget French Revolution drama is that “it shows the demos, it impressively exposes this big, cloddish [ungeschlachte] animal in all its cowardice and daredevilry, its despicableness and its raw power [Urkraft].” [my transl.] With this description of the people – whom not for nothing he calls demos (and not “Volk” or “Mob”) – he institutes the theoretical motif of popular mobilizations and configurations as morally ambivalent, in the everyday and in more narrow political contexts. This idea of ambivalence will inform his writings on film and fascism and, ex negativo, on questions of democracy.
Admirable and despicable, impressive and frightening: Kracauer will, during the 1920s, unfold the ambivalence of the demos within the framework of an opposition of ‘F to F’; of film to fascism. On the one hand, there is film, connected to the cinema as a public sphere in which dispersion can be cultivated, as Kracauer’s canonical 1926 essay “Kult der Zerstreuung” makes clear (with Zerstreuung canonically translated as “distraction” – not “dispersion” – which is a bit too close to cultural pessimist critiques of people’s alleged inability to focus). In the mass public sphere of the cinema, one that in big cities cuts across class divisions, film exposes and, in many cases – especially those of the slapstick and action films that Kracauer cherishes – remains true to the disorder of society. In his posthumous final book, History: The Last Things Before the Last, Kracauer will use “contingency” as the most general, and most easily ‘politicizable,’ name for the fact that social order rests on shaky, precarious grounds and not stable fundaments; politics is the activity of dealing with this precariousness, while history is this activity’s long-term temporal form. (This goes for Kracauer as much as for more recent ‘post-foundationalist’ theorists of political antagonism and conflict over hegemony: Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Oliver Marchart and others.) And it is in Kracauer’s 1927 concept of the “mass ornament” (developed with respect to chorus-line dances and stadium sports events, but implying the dispersions of cinema), in the yet-to-be-deciphered formations of the masses, that the ambivalence of the demos has an echo: the mass ornament is as ambivalent as the process of rationalization it expresses in its fragmented, post-organic forms and movements. As for its outcome – the passage of society through rationalization, as curtailed by Fordist capitalism’s exploitative accumulation – it is as ambiguous as the “Linden Passage” that Kracauer writes about in a 1930 FZ article: the Berlin shopping arcade’s modernized architecture “may later spawn who knows what—perhaps fascism, or perhaps nothing at all.” [Thomas Levin’s transl.]
In film and at the cinema, social contingency finds relatively good chances of being wahrgenommen; of being perceived in a manner that takes – accepts and affirms – the truth of this very contingency, and thus its democratic potential, which Kracauer, especially in his most openly Marxist period, around 1930, paints in strongly communist tones: a communism-to-come with shades of a post-messianic temporality. This becomes especially evident by looking at the other side of the F-opposition, at fascism and the political shift to the nationalistic right of the 1920s: here, social contingency is disavowed and compensated for politically. A number of Kracauer’s analyses from around 1930, among them his series of FZ articles (and later a book, Die Angestellten) on the salaried masses and his essay “Revolt [Aufruhr] of the Middle Classes,” deals with the middle classes that are “ideologically” or “transcendentally shelterless” (a Lukács term dear to Kracauer). This non-class is objectively ‘proletarianized,’ exposed to exploitation (even through their ‘affective labor’ in stores, shops and offices) and enforced precarity, but is still bourgeois or petty-bourgeois in its habitus, desperately clinging to lost social and cultural privileges and cultivating resentments that increasingly find their articulation in movements and parties on the far right. So, the middle classes, among them those whom Kracauer labels “philistines” in his 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler, make up one portion of the unhoused, uprooted masses that will find a political home with Hitler, as the most successful of the right-wing political actors.
But there is also – more in the ranks of the fascist/Nazi parties than in their electorates – the boheme, or the “outsiders,” as Kracauer calls them: intellectuals, artists, desperados, former soldiers and officers, now jobless in post-World War I Germany, and other unemployed: in seeing fascism(s) as being carried by these social groups, Kracauer takes part in that strand of early theories of fascism that follow the lines of Marx’s concept (articulated in his Eighteenth Brumaire) of “Bonapartism,” i.e., a colorful clique of adventurers taking over the institutions of the bourgeois state and exerting a power that pretends to be, and to some degree is, above class. Finally, among the “ideologically shelterless” sheltered by Hitler, there are – in Kracauer’s essays around 1930 and especially in his (then-unpublished) large-scale 1938 study on the fascist politics of mobilization, Totalitäre Propaganda – the anti-bourgeois, neo-romantic youth movements whose inclinations can be vitalist as much as revolutionary in a left-wing sense. Interestingly, in Totalitäre Propaganda, Kracauer sees in fascism, among other factors, a certain manifestation of youthful mentality, which is marked by romantic desire, adventurousness and a “longing for rebellion and authority at the same time.” He accused the 1932 communist agitprop film Kuhle Wampe, for instance, of a certain ‘youth fetish’ – ignoring the fact that being young and proud of it is not political in itself, and therefore indifferent as to, or rather contingent upon, a left- or right-wing articulation. More importantly, the schizophrenic (in a non-Deleuzian sense) simultaneity of longing for rebellion and longing for authority became central to the Caligari book’s psychoanalytically-inflected ideological critique of the Weimar bourgeoisie through the prism of that period’s cinema.
A nihilist will
Middle classes, the boheme, youth movements – all of them shelterless with respect to the ideologies and institutions of the old class landscape (capitalist bourgeoisie, proletarian labor, plus aristocracy, farmers, civic servants). What follows from Kracauer’s interpretation of fascism as the political articulation of these constituencies is that this movement and, later, form of government is not expressive of a class. Rather, Kracauer’s decades-long diagnostics of the vacuum of rationalized bourgeois society is, in his theoretization of fascism, placed within a genuinely political framework. Put slightly differently – as he writes in 1938 Totalitäre Propaganda, his book about the forms of political mobilization and rule under Hitler and Mussolini – fascism ultimately serves the needs of big capital (“Großkapital”), which is “ideologically mute.” Following from this tenet, Kracauer pays a certain tribute to Horkheimer’s contemporaneous theory of “state capitalism” on the verge of becoming global. (His propaganda study was actually written for Horkheimer’s Institute for Social Research, but it was turned down after Adorno’s devastating review of the submitted work… but that’s another story.) At the same time, however, he short-circuits any reductive – in the sense of ‘tracing back’ – connection of fascism to capital; for, if Großkapital does not speak, there is nothing for fascism to translate. As Kracauer explains: while it is true that industrial capital benefits hugely from the fact that fascism smashes workers’ rights institutions and liberal public spheres, the relation of fascism to capital is not one of expression, nor is it one of representation or instrumentalization. Rather, Kracauer sees in fascism a “power impulse” (“Machtimpuls“) that gravitates towards monopoly capitalism, and it is this “impulse” or “will to power” (“Machtwille,” in a non-Nietzschean sense) that acquires a meaning of its own, i.e., independent of any ‘economic base’ in that it is, most of all, a nihilist will. The nothing that fascism and its propaganda strive for is the counterpart of their aspirations towards “total domination.”
According to Kracauer, fascism is anti-political in that it is not about political struggle and conflict, but about ending all politics – and not in some utopian sense of Aufhebung, but in the sense of suppressing it. This is closely connected to its nihilism, since, as Kracauer points out, fascist propaganda avoids all ties with “any values, ideas, autonomous contents whatsoever” apart from the “historically necessary fixation on private property” (which makes it useful for capital, without being reducible to this usefulness). Therefore, fascism’s “claim for totality,” its “Totalitätsanspruch,” is distinct from that of communist politics in that it aims “not at penetrating people with a doctrine that it recognizes as true, but at avoiding doctrines in general.” I will not here pursue the perspective that connects this doctrine-avoiding anti-politics of fascism with the liberal, ethicist ideology of the ‘post-ideological’ condition after 1945. Let me rather point to what nowadays we would call the ‘media aspect’ of this anti-politics: instead of entering a “struggle of opinion” (“Meinungskampf”), fascism results in the “death of opinion” (“Meinungstod”). Furthermore (and clearly evoking Walter Benjamin’s contemporaneous critique of a fascist aestheticization of politics), Kracauer speaks of the movement’s nihilism as amounting to a political “l’art-pour-art” principle, according to which, “aestheticizing propaganda aims at anaesthetizing the masses.”
It is in this context that the Nazis’ antisemitism makes one of its rare explicit appearances in Kracauer’s dispersed theory/theories of fascism – rare when we look for antisemitism on the level of a conceptual object, rather than just a Kracauerian trace (which I pursue elsewhere), and also when we compare it to the central status that ‘exterminatory’ and racist (not religious or cultural) antisemitism rightly has in our present understandings of National Socialism. This present of ours is different from Kracauer’s own: he first wrote about Nazism before the Holocaust (up to 1938), and then before the Holocaust gained its relevance to understanding histories of power (up to the 1950s). It is also true that in his time it was much clearer, much more common knowledge than today (when this fact is being disavowed) that antisemitism is not particular to the Nazis, but a rather wide-spread attitude – a business strategy used by all types of political organizations on the right, including the Christian right (known to flirt with fascism), plus an all-too frequent element of anti-capitalist propaganda. Hence, Kracauer sees antisemitism as derivative, as it were: as an element of fascism’s “pseudo-reality,” especially when it comes to serving as a “means for deepening the impression of a unity of the people [Volkseinheit]” – a unity that is, of course, illusionary (and, for many, deadly). In his perspective, fascism is so empty that not even nationalism, racism or antisemitism can give it depth (and they could not do so anyway, because these attitudes and ideologies were ‘everywhere’ in the 1930s, and not Hitler’s unique selling proposition).
A political realism of contingency
A second important aspect of Kracauer’s take on fascism’s nihilist will to power is that fascism becomes part of an opposition of nihilism versus realism – to be more specific, nihilism as colored by a certain idealism versus realism with a materialist and democratic ‘insubordinating’ inflection (“from below,” as he puts it in 1960’s Theory of Film and History). This opposition – according to Kracauer’s emptiness/de-realization critique of the 1920s through to Theory of Film’s championing of (neo)realist cinema– is played out in the cinema. There, we encounter the multi-faceted cinema of the autonomous subject, the films that purport to be “works” expressive of a “soul,” which accounted for much of Weimar-German cinema (of which Kracauer wrote jokingly that it should be labeled with warnings akin to “men at work” road-signs, only reading “soul at work”). He criticizes this cinema in the tradition of German idealism, as well as the bourgeois notion of art as being connected to prestige (symbolic capital, in today’s terms) and the idea of expensive design as having value in itself (e.g. the high-minded, big-budget studio picture). In opposition, Kracauer articulates a linkage from the slapstick film, culminating in the works of Keaton and especially Chaplin, to Italian (and Indian) neorealism, with films that let us experience chance encounters and “the street” as a zone of unexpected possibility – in short, a cinema of contingency. Moving away from the domain of arthouse cinemas and film festivals, he also draws a line connecting the sensation pieces (“Sensationsstücke”) of a Harry Piel (whom he held dear in the 1920s) to Hitchcock thrillers, gangster films and obscure action B-movies from the 1930s to the mid-1940s (which he expands on in Theory of Film).
We cannot, however, label Kracauer an advocate of a cinema of sensation; a cinema of attraction and shock. There are, of course, his oft-quoted (thanks to Miriam Hansen) passages about film virtually “exploding” the ego of the viewing subject, having grabbed them “mit Haut und Haar” (“with skin and hair”). It should be kept in mind that Kracauer wrote this in his 1940/41 “Marseille notes” for his later Theory of Film, while on the run from the German army and Nazi/Vichy authorities with his wife Lili. Having fled from Paris to Southern France, the pair found themselves stuck in the port city for roughly a year. The same goes for his somewhat ‘shock-heavy’ articles on “Horror [das Grauen] in Film” and “The Historical Film” published in Swiss newspapers in May of 1940. One might go so far as to attribute his focus on shock and sensoria being blown to bits to his all-too involuntary encounter with the destructive power of the German war machine, as the eponymous Blitz(krieg) devastated Western Europe and forced Kracauer, the refugee, into yet another hurried escape. On a conceptually broader scale, his encounter with Blitzkrieg and its image dynamics took place a year later, in the first investigation he wrote in his new exile/home of New York, in 1942. In the pamphlet “Propaganda and the Nazi War Film,” restricted to official use (but later published as an appendix in the Caligari book), he analyzes big-budget German propaganda ‘documentaries’ about the attacks on Poland and France with an eye and ear for how fascist mise-en-scène and montage actually work on the nervous systems of members of the awe-struck masses. The nihilism he stressed in his 1938 propaganda analysis now reappears as an overall ‘mobilism’ that turns war into perpetual motion, swallowing (enemy) space in forceful pans, tracking shots, montages and animations, celebrating how the ever-joyful German soldiers never disembark from their speeding tanks. Shock and sensory overload were something that the Nazis did with utmost virtuosity.
Again, this is far from being merely an aesthetic question. Rather, the ‘mobilism’ of Nazi cinema (of a certain type, not every Heinz Rühmann vehicle… although there are correspondences) is an extension of the mobilization strategies and tactics that Kracauer identified in fascist propaganda, understood as a politics of coming to, and wielding, power for its own sake. What he sees in this propaganda is the “carrying over of static social relations into dynamic ones,”a “liquefying of fixed complex[es],” the “putting into motion of the immobile.” It comes as no big surprise, and it is perfectly adequate to fascism as an object of investigation, that in a 1938 description of fascist politics Kracauer employs terminology associated with film (or a certain discourse of film). “Schocks,” “Rhythmus” and “Montagen” are, according to Kracauer, tools of the autonomous Nazi subject, as they nihilize politics, social institutions and critical faculties: “Volks-Seele at work.” Revolutionary Soviet cinema, on the other hand, what we nowadays almost automatically call “Soviet montage cinema,” is to Kracauer – and this is part of the distinction he makes between Nazi and communist politics – not primarily a cinema of “montage”; rather, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, a film he cherishes, is to him first and foremost a realist film (rather than an ‘electrifying’ or ‘sensoria-smashing’ one), a film that explores worlds of objects, forces and classes. And, even more importantly, Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (or, The Human Being with the Cinema-Apparatus as some of us prefer to call it) is to Kracauer primarily a melancholic film, in which moments of death, loneliness, negativity and freeze frames puncture the montages of the post-revolutionary people’s vitality. Bringing together Kracauer’s writings on Vertov (1930) with works such as “Photography” (1927), the Salaried Masses (with Angestellten culture’s “flight from death and revolution,” 1929/30) and “The Historical Film” (1940), we arrive at what he means by shock: the sudden, even moving (in all its arrestation), eruption of a strong sense of individual finitude, always unhoused socially, yet always in connection with the finitude/contingency of social orders. And this goes not only for Vertov’s communist countrymen and their leisure pursuits, but also (according to a similar, albeit much shorter, description in Theory of Film) for the “melancholy void pervading middle-class life” in a vacationing state as it is wahrgenommen in Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday – with its configurations of people and things perceived in detail, and without resentment.
Luis Trenker in Der Rebell. Copyrights: Autonome Provinz Bozen-Südtirol – Amt für Film und Medien
In contrast to the punctured realism of contingency, there is fascist cinema, völkische mise-en-scène, which Kracauer also approaches under the headline of a ‘proximity to what is real.’ I am putting this so clumsily in order to avoid calling it realism, and thus to preserve Kracauer’s concept of realism from getting mixed up with the “excess in execution” (“Übermaß an Realisierungskunst”) that he sees at work (according to one of his last film reviews before fleeing Nazi Germany in early 1933) in Luis Trenker’s nationalist rebel-as-leader historical drama Der Rebell. A history that could be experienced only in a “broken [gebrochen]” manner, writes Kracauer, defines the narrative of Trenker’s ‘perfectly made’ Bergfilm action spectacle. It is a work of history rendered too present, too much placed at the service of present interests – in this case, right-wing nationalist attitudes, and their penetration of public spheres; too skilfull a Realisierung – a bit reminiscent of the “realism” marked by unbearable “crassness” which he saw in the passion scenes of the early Italian Jesus epic Christus (according to his 1921 review). So, with messiah figures exposing their suffering ‘for all of us’ – from Christ to nationalist rebel leaders – the fullness aimed at and claimed in their becoming-present, becoming gegenwärtig, real, wirksam (in short, the very ideology of plenitude and fulfillment) takes center stage in Kracauer’s political film criticism. He is confronted with the fullness and restlessness (both Rastlosigkeit and Restlosigkeit, referring to a political and aesthetic strategy of exterminating all remainders of opposition in a society) championed by nationalist nihilists. In this confrontation, Kracauer sometimes intimates a positive conception of nothingness: if fascism wants everything, then pointing to the very nothing, the emptiness that remains becomes a desperate gesture towards that which is not subsumed under the new system of domination.
Kracauer’s ‘hope for nothing’ becomes manifest in the poetic ending of his 1942 study Propaganda and the Nazi War Film, in which he interprets the Nazi newsreel images of Hitler visiting newly occupied Paris, deserted in the morning, as an act of refusal, as it were: the city itself appears in these images as a void, “as silent as a grave,” ostensibly not greeting Hitler. This emptiness, this ‘not being there,’ denies the occupier who comes to review his prey. Recall the blunt ending of Kracauer’s 1930 Linden Arcade article – his ‘non-prophecy’ that bourgeois society’s ‘architecture’ would later (pretty soon, in fact) “spawn who knows what—perhaps fascism, or perhaps nothing at all.” In this quote again, the nothing takes, preserves, the place of an order which could be different from fascism.
How the left lost
Let us now turn to today’s political situation, and particularly the mobilization of the right-wing, with Kracauer’s political theories of film and of fascism in mind. The successes of the Querdenker (‘lateral thinking’) movements – which are opposed to anti-COVID-19 measures, especially vaccinations; fomenters of biopolitical panic and sometimes antisemitic conspiracy beliefs (certainly not theories) – in ‘taking the streets’ throughout Germany, Austria and other European countries exemplify, among other things, the hijacking of historically left-wing criticques and attitudes by the right. Imagine, for instance, how difficult it will be to regain a radical democratic critique of the truth regimes of science(s) and ‘expertocracies’ now that a skeptical stance vis-à-vis science, upgraded to paranoia, has become the domain of völkische health-nuts and eco-fascists. While the 1935 collection Erbschaft dieser Zeit by Ernst Bloch (a friend of Kracauer’s) is the first place one should turn to when analyzing right-wing takeovers of political strategems and ‘raw materials’ that are, or should be, interacted with and shaped by the left, there is almost just as much to be learned from Kracauer in this context. Leaving aside the question (relevant to both him and Bloch) of how left-wing politics might inherit the promises inherent to religious traditions, there is the issue roughly contained by the question: why is the right so successful in politicizing social sentiments and situations that should be areas of left-wing mobilization? Without pretending to answer this question here, I want to just briefly mention Kracauer’s analyses, carried out between 1933 and the late 1940s, of the misguided political orientations on the left that contributed to its defeat by Nazism, and again by the McCarthyism that took hold in the U.S. after 1947.
During the final Weimar years, according to Kracauer, the Nazis pursued their effective politics of emotion, whereas the social democrats stuck to an “anemic” conception of industrial workers’ solidarity with no sense for the true scale of political power, and the ever-purist communists were too occupied with their political “chastity” vis-à-vis the bourgeois system. Both left-wing parties had lost all “emotional attachments” to the masses, and underestimated the importance of the middle classes. Even more tellingly, Kracauer criticizes Hollywood’s left-liberal “movies with a message” of the immediate post-World War II years (films like 1947’s Gentleman’s Agreement and Crossfire) for delivering their messages from a stance of knowingness and at the same time weariness. He highlights how these movies make the political mistake of treating racism, especially antisemitism, as a primarily cognitive problem – as an attitude of ‘uneducated’ ‘lower’ classes who just need to be enlightened as to the error of their ways.
We can see an echo of this today in that many educationally privileged people still spread the idea that sexism, hatred of minorities or readiness to follow conspiracy beliefs are characteristics of those who do not know better. The (mis)understanding of politics as a matter of ‘knowing/not knowing’ runs up against its limits with right-wing politics that, to a large degree, cannot be countered by uncovering hidden truths, because these politics do not rely primarily on covering up and hiding. What do I mean by this? One could cite many disarmingly open-hearted anti-migrant statements made in public by Austrian politicians of the Christian-Democratic right (politicians not at all worried about having their heartlessness or malice towards refugees exposed); the cynical openness of several of Trump’s speeches and statements is, of course, the most prominent case in point. Already in 1938 Kracauer pointed out how fascist propaganda was not so much a case of actively covering up hidden agendas, but comparable rather to a magician playing tricks on us while at the same time explaining the logic and machinery behind each one. Extending this line of thought, one should bear in mind the narrow limits of time-honored critical concepts such as ‘reflexivity.’
Flexible fascism – forces unleashed, ideas unbound
It would also be a grave mistake to underestimate right-wing opponents as being ‘narrow-minded’ or stuck with outdated convictions just because ‘we’ find that they come across as stupid. In this respect, too, an important lesson to be drawn from Kracauer’s theory of fascism is how flexible – to use a buzzword of recent neoliberal discourse and post-Fordist governmentality – this type of movement and politics is: freed from attachments to any content, much less in need of keeping up façades or inner consistencies than bourgeois or socialist parties and movements, fascist politics are defined by their flexibility. The continuous change of courses, programs and alliances is something that Kracauer highlights in the politics of Mussolini and Hitler’s movements in 1938 (the same would go for their forms of government and war): “constant improvisation,” avoidance of all “fixations,” in the “absence of principles” turning “the change of courses itself into a principle.” Along with these observations, Kracauer quips that most political actors of the far-right “after all, have not learnt anything”– i.e., never had a non-military profession. It would be cheap – and yet, not beside the point – to associate this remark with Austria’s ex-chancellor (twice over) Sebastian Kurz, who went straight from high school to the country’s Christian conservative party, taking over the latter conspiratorial-like, shifting it to the far right and transforming it into a centrally managed, post-institutional vehicle (even called a “movement” [“Bewegung“]) for coming to executive power in Austria.
These points about fascism’s flexibility – about how easily a party can be steered once unbound from representational functions (typical of the ‘popular parties’ of the ‘classical’ class interest type: conservatives and social democrats) – should highlight the degree to which fascism, in both its historical and current incarnations, is neither disciplinary nor authoritarian in a straightforward sense. Rather, fascism is about unleashing forces, aggressive masses and ‘creative’ energies (frequently destructive in character). Again, it can be instructive to look at the affinities between the fascist and neoliberal ways of relying on increased mobility and flexibility, on the charisma of ‘doers’ and ‘movers’ who are uninhibited by the institutional or juridical limitations of the bourgeois state, religious or enlightened moralities, labor institutions, women’s movements, minority rights, UN chartas, refugee conventions, ecological standards, parliaments, etc. The nihilism that, from a Kracauerian perspective, neoliberalism shares with fascism (since the latter is an extreme political articulation of the social forces of subsuming reality under forms of rationalization – this far, Kracauer would agree with the stance of the Dialectic of Enlightenment), ultimately entails that “success as such is its only criterium,” and politically, “the only sin it can commit is that of not being successful.” [my transl.]
In a ‘practical’ sense, this nihilism involves a detachment from accountability to the general public that allows for micro-targeting audiences and electorates; we have seen this during the Trump and Brexit campaigns and also in the growth of self-enclosed, parallel or ‘alternative’ media publics by far-right parties in Central Europe. Already in 1938, Kracauer points to the Italian fascist’s remarkable capability of making shifts in programmatic and political client-orientation in rapid succession – and to the even more advanced capabilities of the Nazis, who made simultaneous appeals to social groups neatly separated by opposed interests, “promising the blue down from heaven [“das Blaue vom Himmel herunter” – meaning, the fulfilment of the most fanciful wishes]” to each. [my transl.] This goes hand in hand with the notorious hijacking of the appearances of socialist workers’ parties while catering to middle-class resentments and industrial capital’s profit interests. ‘Nationalized socialism’ – with a welfare state exclusively for non-migrant and docile (also heteronormative, fertile, wage-earning and father-centered) populations, is a mainstay of Austria’s far-right FPÖ. This is what Kurz’s remodeled ÖVP conservatives have snatched away from the “Freedom Party,” along with the rhetoric of racist propaganda, leaving the non-entrepreneurial right in Austria only the protest against COVID-19 vaccinations as their domain for political mobilization.
But let me briefly touch upon a second characteristic of fascism noted by Kracauer, with respect to a more philosophical understanding of its unbound and detached politics, concerning its relationship with ideas. On the one hand, Kracauer clearly places German fascism in the tradition of German idealism in a broader sense, with its neglect for reality and its everyday intricacies and banalities, for its social materiality, for the “thicket of things” (as he calls it in Theory of Film and History). So, there is idealism, in the sense of a neglect of reality and the material dimension of life, which Kracauer rejects. On the other hand, there is Kracauer’s constant being drawn towards ideas. He always remains close to the irreducibility – the ‘not to be gotten rid of’-ness – of ideas, truths and “last things.” This is a separate story full of paradoxes and penultimate things (which I am telling elsewhere) – except for the one part in which he articulates the absence of ideas, of binding causes and meaningful truths, in fascist politics. Fascism is unbound from ideas, but it also circulates ideas in an unbound, detached state: in his 1938 investigation, Kracauer explains first how ideas are always connected to, without being exhausted by, social situations (He will, in his last book, History, approach this under the name “historical idea”), before going on to explain that fascist propaganda uncouples ideas from any ties they have to such situations, – their ties to conflicting social groups and interests, uncoupling them entirely from material (and historical) reality – so as to make them available for rhetorical manipulation. This concerns especially the idea of abolishing class divisions, which the Nazis stole from workers’ organizations and employed as empty buzzwords and campaign logos meant to drum up pathos. It is in this context that Kracauer points out that ideas are of use to fascism only insofar as they “fascinate,” thus anticipating a phrase that would become well known as the title of a Susan Sontag essay: fascinating fascism.
Who follows Kurz?
Again, with a rapid cut to recent Austrian politics, one could mention how the workers’ movements’ idea that politics should be “sozial” (make society less unjust, less unsafe for the have-nots) was emptied by the Freedom Party and re-filled with a purely völkisch-national content. Alternatively, one could mention the slogan of former conservative secretary of finance (2019 – 2021), Gernot Blümel, a close ally of Kurz (and an alleged fan of Kierkegaard with an M.A. in philosophy): “The social question of our time is the exploitation of the middle classes.” Meaning: lower taxes for private profits. (Blümel’s often-circulated take on the “social question” – one of class-based injustice – comes with a surprising twist.) More recently, in December of 2021, Kurz’s successor in the chancellor’s office, the anti-migrant hardliner Karl Nehammer, advocated for the importance of “solidarity” – a right-wing conservative filling a void of ideas with an idea/word derived and uncoupled from left-wing struggles. However, he stubbornly and tellingly mispronounced the word, so foreign to his ideology, as “Sollidarität” [sic!], closer to the German verb “sollen,” which designates what you have to do (e.g., under conservative rule).
Thirdly, and in a more practical sense, following from the absence of ideas or truths in fascism, it is logical and also comparatively easy for this type of politics to take recourse to a strategy similar to the one that has, in recent years, become notorious under a phrase coined – allegedly – by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon: flood the zone with shit. This means that today’s advocates of uninhibited executive politics – organized around a Messiah figure (often boyish in a son-in-law way like Kurz, or in a dirty older brother way like Trump and Johnson) and giving free rein to the successful – are more likely to destroy the playing field of social, ideological and communicative conflict than to support any one position on that playing field. All the propaganda statements aimed more at confusing the matter at hand than explaining one’s approach to it, all the disputes deliberately ruined from the outset instead of standing one’s ideological ground, exemplify the overall strategy, perfected in Kurzist “message control,” to undermine the individual’s sense of truth and untruth. The ultimate goal is to create a state of confusion in which the redeemer with a firm hand, also the one who encourages you to harbor and cherish your “fears,” i.e. resentments, will prevail and introduce his (sometimes her) kind of order. “Their effort,” Kracauer wrote in 1938, “goes not, as it does in democratic politics, into separating the lie from the truth, but results in a mentality to which the lie and the truth are equally irrelevant.” [my transl.]
The beginning of 2022 marks one year after the fall, or rather non-fall, of Trump – his coup failed in the short run, but may yet prove successful in the long run. In the aftermath of the quick rise and even quicker fall of Kurz, with his ‘brother regime’ having been replaced by one comprised of corporatist Dollfuß admirers, ex-cops and army officers turned politicians, less fit for Silicon Valley and less ideologically mute than their youthful precursor, more ostensibly provincial and outright law-and-order reactionary, we find ourselves maintaining a “firm stance” in anti-migrant measures. (Meanwhile, the Green Party performs the decorative function of humble coalition servants to the ÖVP government’s cause). At this point in time one could and should wonder: what factors, qualities, determinants and elements are active in the various successes of far-right parties? Even more pressing is the question, what has fueled the mutations of the traditional conservative parties into Führer-centered, dynamic networks? Forgive me if at this point I postpone discussion about which aspects of right-wing populism, authoritarian nationalism, aggressive neoliberalism, national socialism, “bourgeois brutality [rohe Bürgerlichkeit]” (Wilhelm Heitmeyer), “radicalized conservatism” (Natascha Strobl) and the fascist fetishization of “movements” for their own sake are active, and to what degree, in the political mobilizations and governments of Kurz and his successors, Trump and his followers, Orbán, Johnson and the German AfD, etc., until another occasion.
Leave the mask on and study it
Let me finish on a note more closely related to film and the oppositional function Kracauer attributes to it. The investigation of fascism is a via regia to the dynamics of politics, where, as he writes in the introduction to his Caligari book, “effects may at any time turn into spontaneous causes” – and where we have to study the mask. What is meant by this imperative? It comes from a remarkable passage in Totalitäre Propaganda: if there is some truth to what many Marxists say, Kracauer writes, namely that fascism is just a mask of the ruling classes and their profit motive, then there remains the huge question, ‘Why this mask and not any other?’ So, to find out about the socio-political entity that wears the mask (no COVID-19 pun intended), we have to analyze the mask’s traits instead of trying to tear it off and look behind it (finding what we thought we knew beforehand). In Kracauer, we have a political sociologist and historian who intimates that politics involves the production of demands, groups, factors and actors in society that were not there before; that there is no fixed social given to be expressed by a movement or party, but (pace John Abromeit, with his anti-Laclauan reading of Kracauer’s theory of fascism) they rather produce and reproduce the social textures from which they emerge, grounding the ungrounded edifices of society – as Kracauer puts it, the effect turning into the cause.
In his perspective, film is the cardinal form of perceiving in its truth [wahrnehmen] this turn, and for observing and studying what is not given; what remains invisible in all its publicness. It is no coincidence that at various junctures in Kracauer’s work – and in his life, on the run from fascism(s) for many years – horror films, thrillers and ‘shockers’ become his cinematic weapons of choice in facing fascism – be they the conspiracy thrillers and mind-game movies avant la lettre through which he looks at Germany in the pre-Hitler years; be they Georges Franju’s slaughterhouse documentary Le sang des bêtes and Chaplin’s serial killer farce Monsieur Verdoux, written about (in Theory of Film’s “Head of Medusa” section) as companion films through which we can face the horror and in particular the horrible everyday/routine nature of the Nazi Holocaust without becoming petrified or nihilistic; be they those “Terror Films,” noir thrillers, which in the mid-forties showed the violence and paranoia of life under fascist rule as “transferred to the American scene.” I, for my part, have attempted to submit Jordan Peele’s terrific 2017 social thriller Get Out to a Kracauerian reading (2) – one that ultimately shows this: if the architectures of bourgeois everydayness will spawn “perhaps fascism, or perhaps nothing at all,” it is also true that sometimes, almost “nothing” separates the self-reproduction of cozy middle class well-being from conspiratorial fascist self-organization, and that the racism of friendly white liberals has consistently been effective in exploiting and hurting the bodies and minds of people of color, making of them commodities and disowned production sites of surplus value for the successful.
(1) What follows is a kind of teaser for a little German-language book on Kracauer’s theory of fascism that I am working on, and for a lengthy book called DemoKRACy, also in German, on Kracauer’s overall political theory in affinity with film. In this essay, I have omitted details of the sources, but most of my quotations from Kracauer can easily be found online or in the Werke edition of his writings.
(2) Drehli Robnik, “Perhaps Fascism, or Perhaps Nothing at All”: Political Truths in Pre-Fascist Popular FIlm Today,” Volksfronten – Popular Fronts, 2019. https://www.academia.edu/40384997/_Perhaps_Fascism_or_Perhaps_Nothing_at_All_Political_Truths_in_Pre_Fascist_Popular_Film_Today_2019_