Siegfried Kracauer’s examination of capitalism takes the idea that distraction results in mass cinema audiences eventually becoming more not just spectators but accomplices in the reproduction of ideology as the point from which his theories on how film production emulates capitalist society while also serving as necessary institution for the continual reproduction of its hierarchy of authority begin. Kracauer judges capitalism to be the bloodstream through which the cancer of inevitable disenchantment passes This is an essential element of modernity, reflecting the disjointed sense of reality. Therefore, cinema must be engaged as a means of exposing the attributes of modern life that can be understood frame by frame within static images that are just as disjointed as the society in which they are joined. Kracauer apprehends the static images given movement and meaning by the workings of the human eye and brain as an agent of distraction from society. There is a palpable ideological need to serve up a distraction to the masses in order to keep them from seeing through the consciousness of domination by naturalizing the concept. That distraction results in mass audience eventually becoming more than mere spectators; they become actual accomplices.
Kracauer’s views on capitalism are such that under the capitalist idea film production becomes a mirror of the existing society and serves to maintain its structures of domination, insisting that the capitalism was not just a means, but an end in getting the proletariat to first apprehend the structures and then embrace them, and finally defend them. The capitalism mentality lay at the heart of the disenfranchisement of the masses and fragmented quality of society . The “Tiller Girls” presents itself as an excellent illustration of the crowds in a modern metropolis, and the upper class saw them as a distraction for the common masses but the masses are like clockwork and could be controlled. Kracauer believed deeply and sincerely that the cinematic techniques that expose aspects of modern life could best be seen frame by frame and in those choppy and fragmented images were much like our modern world.
An example of the extremes of this process becomes apparent in Kracauer’s landmark history of German film, From Caligari to Hitler. This volume is justly famous as one of the most popular critiques ever written by Kracauer, with the thrust of his argument being that cultural concepts forwarded in film serving to inculcate unnatural and often even dangerous methodologies. German filmmaking in the years leading up to World War II overflows with foreshadowing of the authoritative administration to come. Kracauer assembles a history of not just German film, but of the German people during this period, suggesting that a psychological inclination among the people of Germany at the time to facilitate the rise of a totalitarian state. That psychological lack of a proper defense mechanism and the utter impotence of those who were solidly opposed to the patently obvious are encoded in the German films of this time, most particularly symbolized by the submissive Cesare who is fully under control of the maniacal Dr. Caligari.
In concert with the more obvious ideological containments of German films between the end of World War II and the rise of the Nazis, Kracauer also offers up some less evident analysis, specifically when he analyzes the work of Fritz Lang. Fritz Lang may well have been the artistic superior of the more obvious propagandists, but Kracauer finds fascinating contradictions and ambiguities that exist in such films as Metropolis and the Testament of Dr. Mabuse that can be properly read as engendering and furthering the authoritarian propaganda so eloquently appropriated by such explicitly friendly fellow travelers as Leni Riefenstahl.
Kracauer finds a correlation between film and photography, based on the essential trait of photography to reproduce reality. This reproduction has two effects; it both records the immediacy of documentary truth while at the same time encoding hidden depths of truth that require more attention and even sometimes multiple viewings. Kracauer formulates aesthetic pleasure that is derived from the willingness to draw parallels with reality from the representation put on display on the screen. For that reason, the artistic possibilities of the medium are best generated by following the ideals of realistic representation so that the result are less intrusively cinematic and contain something that is closer to strictly documentary or even documentary-style Italian neo-realist elements.
It all returns to the idea of cinema as a machine of distraction. As earlier stated, Kracauer desired for movie theaters to continue distracting the mass audience, but urged that it be done not by special effects and flourishes that also served to distract from the art of the film itself. The most egregious type of distraction engendered by the bourgeoisie is in the content of the narrative that are finely shaped and tailored for consumption by the masses. The producers are naturally part of the prevailing power structure and the consumer of film who views the product as alienating experiences much the same sensation as the factory worker alienated from the product he creates. Kracauer takes this duality as an opportunity to imply that the main job of the producer is to author a narrative that will better relate to the viewer with the express purpose of driving him back to the theater to seek the comfort of false reality that he can naturalize as meaningful to his own existence. This is manipulation that touches on propaganda but is more attuned to friendly persuasion and Kracauer intuits that what really happens is that the producers create films that only pretend to address the reality of the proletariat but in fact continue to reproduce the false consciousness and inculcate a misplaced belief.
Despite the fact that often the idea that they are being manipulated arises either through the consciousness-raising of the individual or through a dissenting film making it somehow to the mainstream, it has a lasting effect that is temporary at best and usually eradicated with the next visit to a cinema. For instance, many films portray a scenario in which unhappy circumstance are overcome and the protagonist enjoys riches and success typically denied to anyone coming from his station in real life. Kracauer views these propagandistic devices as a strategy for avoiding the necessity to accurately portray the darker aspects of society such as poverty or class unfairness. This is a means of distraction that tears apart the narrative from the artistry, interjecting an unwanted component that rather than deepening the alienation, instead draws him deeper into the falsity.
Everything from spotlights to 3-D visuals are put in place to distract the viewer from the 2-D screen, and make them more attuned the supposed quality of representing reality. A good example is the comparison of a painting to film; the portrait may be lifelike, but its inherently static quality serves to distance the reality of even the most lifelike painting from the viewer. Likewise, any artistic flourish that serves to further the distinction of reality within the medium of film creates an ever more likely opportunity for distraction. Kracauer saw the movie theater itself as a temple dedicated to the engendering of sensationalistic leisure. Most of the films during the Expressionist period in Weimar Germany proved to be a distraction of the German culture, the shots of the crowds is a distraction it is a comparison of herds. Kracauer’ understanding was that any image projected onto a screen in a theater is a distraction, and there are two actors at work together. The actor on the screen on the actor inside the viewers head who attempts to cultivate a normalization into his own life that is based on the representation on the screen.
Siegfried Kracauer’s writings on film scrutinize the fragmentation of society in search of a lost meaning that has been imprinted upon them in the form of false consciousness that is, in turn, reproduced by the narratives of mainstream cinema controlled by the bourgeois producer. Kracauer focuses his critique on the ideas associated with modernity and how it has created a sense of alienation that ironically serves to further adapt film viewers into a state of readiness to accept the homogenization associated with naturalising the perspectives that conform to the prevailing ideology.