Re-reading Kracauer’s Calico-World essay in The Mass Ornament, after almost a decade, I think. Kracauer reflects on the UFA studios in Neubabelsberg, ca. 1930. Such an evocative and exhausting description, first and foremost, of material objects. The world is “cut to pieces” in the film studio and transformed into objects: Japanese cherry trees, churches, empty coffins, painted landscapes, skyscrapers, furniture. Kracauer’s stance is hardly celebratory – very early in the essay he describes the props of a film studio as “a bad dream about objects that has been forced into the corporeal realm”. The masters of this universe “lack any sense of history”. And “nature, in body and soul, has been put out to pasture”, he writes damningly.
So much of this essay on what Kracauer sees inside a film set, depends on his references to the outside world. But that’s one side of the equation. Paradoxically, Kracauer’s wry commentary also seems at the same time to draw on the power of self-evidence exerted by fictive universes in the medium of film. There is no politics here, he writes at one point: “a Bolshevist guardroom turns into a peaceful Swedish railway station”. Is that the description of a fantastical scene in a movie? Or a commentary on it from the outside?
Kracauer seems eager to assert, albeit in the form of a coruscating critique, his belief that the cinema redeems physical reality. At one point, he reminds us that there is nothing false about the materials we see in the UFA lots: wood, metal, glass, clay.” One could also make real things out of them, but as objects in front of the lens, the deceptive ones work just as well. After all, the lens is objective.”
How to integrate humans with the objects of the film studio? Humans and objects are integrated in the cinema because “light melts them together”.
The essay ends with an echo of its early reference to the world cut into pieces. The “foreman” (director) of this factory or workroom now sits with the film, “sifted, spliced, cut up and labeled”, putting it together. The world is cut up and transformed into objects in the film set; the objects and humans are melted by light and turned into film; the film is finally cut up and reorganized into a drama.
“Most of the time the result is good: glass clouds brew and then scatter”.