In this exciting classic, Kracauer not only developed a rich and detailed analysis of the nature of film and its relation to photography and other art forms, but he also develops an original and still relevant view of film's potential and relevance to our age. Kracauer is often recognized as one of the most articulate and influential (along with Andre Bazin) of realist film theorists. Realism in film theory argues that what is special and distinctive to film as an art medium is its capacity for capturing and presenting reality, even realities that can never be directly experienced in other ways. To the extent that realism is presented as a thesis about the sole feature of film that gives it artistic merit, it is a problematic view -- since one of the other distinctive capacities of film is to frame and interpret and shape the reality it depicts. What is most original and still worthwhile, though, in Kracauer's thought is his recognition that realism is a tendency of film and a latent possibility -- not all films are realistic and strict realism (e.g. a camera that follows someone around 24 hours a day) would be neither interesting nor artistic. Kracauer recognizes that the very best films are those that use all of the devices at the disposal of the cinematic art, but, he insists, when they do so in the service of the presentation of reality.
Kracauer's view -- which seems more relevant today than ever -- is that we are living in an increasingly technologized age, where everything we experience is mediated and our experience is shaped by ideologies so that the real illusion (what Baudrillard calls the "Simulacrum"; and what the Wachowski brothers called the "Matrix") is the world around us as we experience it. (He doesn't put it that way, but emphasizes the mechanization and compartmentalization of the modern world -- resulting in an increasing alienation of each of us from each other and from the places we inhabit, rendering interactions increasingly sterile and lifeless and communication increasingly utilitarian: mere means to transmit information rather than intimate acts of communion.) Film has the power, at its best, to summon us back to reality, to remind us of what other media conspire to render invisible. Film, in Kracauer's words, has the power to effect a "redemption of physical reality." The Italian neo-realist tradition of films, for example, told stories informed by everyday life, about everyday people, and using non-actors on location -- they serve thereby to document their time and place, and to connect the dots between aspects of experience that are often not thought together. A similar movement happened to American films in the '70s -- films that held up a mirror to society rather than an image for the audience to imitate and aspire to; some independent films still achieve that condition. The very best foreign films give the experience of peering into a living world, more than that of listening to someone telling a fanciful story. Kracauer's book, then, is not only an important document from the history of thought about film but remains a living legacy and an indispensible read for anyone interested either in the history and nature of film or in its liberatory potential for the future.