In the Spring of 2016, Johannes von Moltke joined distinguished New York Times film critic A.O. Scott at Labyrinth Books in Princeton to talk with Scott about his new book on film criticism, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth. In December, they both traveled back to Princeton to reverse roles, discussing von Moltke’s new book about Siegfried Kracauer, The Curious Humanist. Their conversation touched on Kracauer’s intellectual biography as well as on the larger claims of von Moltke’s book.
During the Weimar Republic, Kracauer established himself as a trenchant theorist of film, culture, and modernity, and he is now considered one of the key thinkers of the twentieth century. But when he arrived in Manhattan aboard a crowded refugee ship in 1941, Kracauer was virtually unknown in the United States and had yet to write his best-known books, From Caligari to Hitler and Theory of Film. In The Curious Humanist, von Moltke details the intricate ways in which the American intellectual and political context shaped Kracauer’s seminal contributions to film studies and shows how, in turn, Kracauer’s American writings helped shape the way in which films are understood and discussed in America.
Using archival sources and detailed readings of published works, von Moltke asks what it means to consider Kracauer as the New York intellectual he became in the last quarter century of his life. The Curious Humanist demonstrates how Kracauer pursued questions in conversation with contemporary critics from Theodor Adorno to Hannah Arendt, from Clement Greenberg to Robert Warshow: questions about the origins of totalitarianism and the authoritarian personality; about high and low culture; about liberalism, democracy, and what it means to be human. From these wide-ranging debates, Kracauer’s own voice emerges as that of an incisive cultural critic invested in a humanist understanding of the cinema.