They Liked Comedy, But They Didn’t Get It: Siegfried Kracauer on American Comedy in Weimar Germany

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German film theorists and thinkers had widely divergent reactions to comedy and film. Theodor Adorno had a problem with all comic films since he saw laughter as sadistic and reactionary. To be sure, he saw it as a negation of thinking. Walter Benjamin, in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” had a much more positive view of film than his friend. He saw the medium as progressive and revolutionary. In part twelve of the essay, Benjamin points out that while the public may have a “backward” reaction to an artist like Picasso, they have a “progressive” reaction to the comedy films of Charlie Chaplin:

The technical reproducibility of the artwork changes the relation of the masses to art. The extremely backward attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into a highly progressive reaction to a Chaplin film.

The “progressive reaction” is “characterized by an immediate, intimate fusion of pleasure – pleasure of seeing and experiencing – with an attitude of expert appraisal.” This differs from the criticism of a Picasso painting because the “progressive reaction” has a “social index” while the Picasso painting has a “reduced social impact.” The less something has a social impact the more “widely criticism and enjoyment of it diverge in public.” But “with regard to cinema, the critical and uncritical attitudes of the public coincide.” And it happens with great immediacy.   Since film involves the “imminent concentrations of reactions into a mass,” it takes on a “progressive” affect.

What many people might overlook is the fact that Benjamin chose comedic film and Charlie Chaplin as the counter examples to Picasso: Chaplin, a comedic American film character, is put in contrast to a serious European artist and his paintings.   They not only work in different mediums; they also speak to entirely different cultures and ideologies.  Siegfried Kracauer, whose work had a lot in common with Benjamin’s, suggests that the German reception of American comedic film, in particular, is mixed because the German public was unfamiliar with the “naïve desire for happiness,” a life of chance, and the “interrelationship between intellectual habits and bodily movements” that we see in early American comedic film performances.

Kracauer found that Germans of the early 20th century may have liked American comedy, but they didn’t get it and they couldn’t reproduce it. And if they don’t get it, how, one wonders could comedy film, like Chaplin’s, have a “progressive affect” in a country like Germany?

We find insights into these questions in Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film.   Kracauer begins by noting how American westerns and comedies became popular in Germany.

Besides Westerns, short comedies featuring Max Linden, Fatty and Tontolini were the vogue of those years (before and after World War I). All the strata of German moviegoers participated in the gay laughter they aroused. The Germans liked that sort of visual fun. It is all the more surprising, therefore, that they themselves were incapable of producing a popular film comedian. As early as 1921, a German writer stated plainly that the Germans were short of comical film ideas – a domain which, he admitted, the French and after them the Americans had learned to explore with mastery. (21)

Kracauer thinks that this had to do with the world and the comic sensibility of the main characters of these films, which “the Germans,” he felt, simply couldn’t comprehend. These characters were innocent, sweet, and helpless; they were “pulled through in a world governed by chance.”

Whether or not they indulged in slapstick, they invariably exposed their hero to all kinds of pitfalls and dangers, so that he depended upon one lucky accident after another to escape.   When he crossed the railroad, a train would approach, threatening to crush him, and only in the last very moment would his life be spared as the train switched over to a track hitherto invisible. The hero – a sweet, rather helpless individual who would never harm anyone – pulled through in a world governed by chance. (21)

Unlike any other medium, Kracauer tells us that “film is able to point to the contingencies of life.”  He also notes that these films “sided with the little pigs against the big bad wolf by making luck the natural ally of its heroes.” Comedy, in other words, suggested that chance could help the “little man.” The idea that, out of nowhere, one could be saved from danger was “comforting to the poor.” The poor, notes Kracauer, had no power and had to rely on chance for any hope of survival. But the “naïve desire for happiness” that these plots suggest was something the Germans could simply not understand:

That such comedy founded on chance and a naïve desire for happiness should prove inaccessible to the Germans arises form their traditional ideology, which tends to discredit the notion of luck in favor of that of fate. (21)

Moreover, the Germans have “developed a native humor” that “holds wit and irony in contempt and has no place for happy-go-lucky figures.” In other words, the Germans have no patience for humor because of their obsession with fate as opposed to chance. This obsession with fate and myth comes out in their humor which tries “to reconcile mankind to its tragic plight”(21). The purpose of their native laughter, at bottom, is to see how “fateful” life really is. And “such dispositions were of course incompatible with the underlying performances of a Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd.”   But what makes their comic performances most alien to German audiences is the “close interrelationship between intellectual habits and bodily movements.”

Taken together, Kracauer believed that American comedy may have been entertaining for Germans but it simply couldn’t be replicated in Germany because it went so contrary to what he called German ideology, with its emphasis on fate rather than chance, and its failure to understand the possibility that there could be a relationship between “bodily movements” and “intellectual habits.” This is something that was articulated in American film and American culture.

But it is ultimately the relationship of comedy to chance and a life of contingency that not only Kracauer but Walter Benjamin also saw as the greatest threat to myth and fate (see his “Fate and Character” essay).   But in contrast to Benjamin, this is what, for Kracauer, seems to make American comic film progressive and the German inability to reproduce it “backward.” Perhaps Benjamin is right about his conjecture that Chaplin films had a progressive affect on Germans who were entertained by it; but, in truth, Kracauer is insightful in his claim that such comedy couldn’t be replicated in Germany because it was foreign to them and their ideology which, both Benjamin and Kracauer would agree, was drawn toward fate and myth.

Chaplin, according to Arendt and Benjamin, was a schlemiel. And although schlemiels may have been popular in Germany and all over Europe for that matter, Kracauer teaches us that a schlemiel, at that time, could only be made in America. And this had to do with the fact that schlemiels and comedic characters played by Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd live in a world of chance where the only thing that can save you is good luck and a naïve belief in the promise of happiness. And this, as Kracauer and Benjamin would concede, is connected, in some way, to the relationship of “intellectual habits to bodily movements” that the film camera amplified and exaggerated for comic affect.

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