The following brief reviews were written by the film critic and cultural theorist Siegfried Kracauer (1889–1966) in 1931, and reflect his responses to Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, and more generally to Chaplin’s artistic and worldly success. Kracauer makes high claims for Chaplin’s work as social critique. Chaplin’s films, he says, pit a convincingly typical and general type of “the human” (the Little Tramp) against a social world grown “inhumanly” inimical. The proof of the Tramp’s universality is his enormous, trans-national popularity, of course, but this widespread appeal is itself grounded in the specifics of Chaplin’s art: in his mastery of a gestural/emotional language not dependent on words, and in the impoverishment of the Tramp himself, his reduction to a basic humanity without economic ornamentation. The Tramp-figure has political force because he stands outside of politics, outside of relativized ideological positions; he is rather the incarnation of the ideally “human” by which these positions are to be judged.
But what of the real-life Chaplin: the movie star, co-founder of United Artists, so spectacularly (and atypically) wealthy and successful? Kracauer, writing at a relatively early stage in the development of the movie star as a public phenomenon (1931), suggests that Chaplin does indeed carry his critique over the borders of film and into his public life, partially through subdued, ironic recollections of that Tramp who brought him so much cash and fame. Whatever one thinks of Kracauer’s efforts to reconcile Chaplin the star with Charlie the stripped-down Everyman, his grappling with the problem is both admirable and suggestive for further reflection on Chaplin as a total social and artistic phenomenon.
Both essays appeared in 1931: the first in the Frankfurter Zeitung vol. 28, no. 3 (75th year, no. 235), the second in Die Neue Rundschau (42nd year, vol. 1), [End Page 115] pp. 573–575. They were both reprinted in 1974 in Siegfried Kracauer: Kino, ed. Karsten Witte (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp) as “Lichter der Grosstadt” (pp. 173–176) and “Chaplins Triumph” (pp. 176–179); the volume also contains a fine afterword by the editor, including some discussion of the essays presented here.
1. City Lights
A product of the most brilliant pantomime is City Lights. In it Chaplin demonstrates again his mastery of the language of gesture, a mastery that reduces the spoken word to shame. He creates gestures and pantomimic situations through which a kind of attitude, difficult to describe in words, is rendered comprehensible to children and adults of every country.
In Berlin, Einstein gave Chaplin a signed photo of himself with the inscription, “To Charlie Chaplin, the economist.” Now, I don’t know whether Chaplin has actually been much involved with economics. But anyone can see from his films that he is a friend of the weak and the woebegone, that he strides through our social wilderness with a warm heart and a sharp eye. He tries to assert himself in this wilderness as a just man; and his pantomime represents nothing other than this meeting between himself and an unjust world.
Here I would like to point out a few scenes from Chaplin’s newest film which show just how his pantomimic language stems from an exemplary, human foundation. At the very beginning we are shown the Tramp on a monument, dedicated to the “Peace and Prosperity of the People,” right after it is unveiled. One simply must see this immense monument, the tiny Tramp lost in its stony folds, and how one of the figures depicting “Peace” slices Charlie’s pants with an enormous sword! Rarely has a funnier travesty of conventional hypocrisy been devised; if laughter can kill, then that unleashed in this episode should wipe out whole dynasties of monuments.
The eccentric millionaire—who, when drunk, embraces Charlie as his friend, and when sober inevitably rejects him—is an incomparable comic enrichment, whose like only the finest humorists among the great novelists have succeeded in creating. When has the arbitrariness of the power enabled by sheer wealth been made more palpably obvious? It should be added that, because he requires alcohol in...