The Realism Debate in Film Theory: The contributions of Alfred Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer

A short note on the formalist and realist strands of filmmaking, taking the case of Alfred Bazin & Siegfried Kracauer, that marked the evolution of film history in the West in the 20th century

The fundamental difference between the realist tradition and the formalist tradition arises from the fact that while one believed in “the naked power of the mechanically recorded image”, the other relied on the “learned power of artistic control over images.” Throughout the history of film, these twin currents have remained inextricably intertwined since their momentous inception in the age of Mélies and the Lumière brothers. Although the formative tradition had initially prevailed as the dominant tradition, realism in film gained importance only when it was tied up with a social function to provide “an absolute alternative [to entertainment films], a cinema with a conscience true both to everyday perception of life and to the social situation.” Thus documentaries and fly-on the wall kind of films came to perpetrate the notion that the real was the visible and that the camera was able to capture that reality. It was thus that the camera established the norms of the ruling ideology. Even though later realism came to be associated with a sense of spontaneity, of life as it is in a moment of contemplation of the world, before such a formulation, it was nevertheless preceded by people like Vertov, Rotha and Vigo who “shriek with a sense of political aspiration.” (Andrew, 104)

But for Kracauer and Bazin, the two giants in the realist tradition, cinema “exists beyond practical political action”. It very much includes politics but is not dominated by it. Even though both bore their allegiance to reality, Bazin unlike Kracauer, tried to define what he meant by reality. While Kracauer simply equated film and reality, with reality as a raw material, Bazin specified the dependence of film on reality and also its distinctness from it. His notion of the tracings of reality on celluloid showed that he recognized a fundamental difference between the object and it representation in a photograph which was then ‘second removed’ from it. These tracings of reality, which were for Bazin the raw material for cinema, were then ‘genetically linked’ to the reality they showed. Also, as they were already comprehensible, they also duplicated the way we see objects in the world or our visual reality. It is this idea that seems to have led Bazin to his notion of cinema as an asymptote of reality, ‘moving closer to it yet forever dependent on it. Cinema ‘stands outside the world and looks just like the world.’ It is this position that allows the cinema then to act as a “sesame” to universes unknown. Yet, even though Kracauer didn’t specify what he meant by reality, except that “empirical reality contains correspondences and interrelationships that the camera can find”, he and Bazin seem to agree on the function that cinema at its highest should turn back to the reality it began with unlike the other arts that transcend their work into a new world of meaning. Thus while Kracauer says that cinema could never be an art, Bazin postulates cinema’s goal in a realm outside the conception of art.

Traditional realist theory and the views of Kracauer advocated that realist techniques or means were indispensable to make a realistic film, but Bazin without dictating the type of technique that a film is best suited to, simply stops at saying that like in a photograph, reality is inescapable from the raw material but does not dictate it. This notion is again more complex than Kracauer’s simplistic notion in which realist film is the outcome of realist technique. Through various observations and case studies of films of his time, Bazin notices that although the raw material is inherently realistic, the form and means of a film are causally linked in a way that the raw material is made “to signify” through its means and achieves “signification” through its proper form. “Signification is the result of style; significance of form.” Defining realism then as that which is opposed to abstraction, Bazin postulates a means of no style or ‘neutral style’ in realist film as that would mean minimum signification and thus a reduced role of the director in the film project and his tendency to abstraction. Even for cinematic adaptations of plays, he advocated filming the artificiality of the play rather than interpreting it cinematically through stylized décor (while Kracauer supported documentaries on painting and painters). He assigns the filmmaker’s task to “seek the significance of a scene within the unadorned image” so that the style and form result from a balance of the artist’s realist and abstract abilities. “The artist’s vision should be ascertained from the selection he makes of reality, not from his transformation of reality.” Kracauer on the other hand, says that man’s basic tendency is to be realist and that the filmmaker’s goal is to record reality through the camera’s basic property and reveal it to the spectators through its technical properties. Although he admits creative intervention on the part of the filmmaker to optimize the use of the film medium, he nevertheless believes that the camera records some aspects of reality better and that some aspects are better suited to the camera than others so that some transformations of these recorded aspects support the photographic effort and provide insights. It is again for the filmmaker to find this balance.

In his discussion of film language, in the face of “atmospheric” montage and “psychological” montage, both of which were the norms of classical narrative editing in all their manipulative and abstract tendencies and the telling the events, Bazin called for the technique of depth of field which, remaining at the level of recording, “permits an action to develop over a long period of time and on several spatial planes.” While montage creates a mental continuity in the audience’s mind at the expense of perceptual continuity, for Bazin a realist style is that which essentially maintains spatial reality as do the long take and the depth of field technique. On an external level, the realist film follows the criteria of shooting on location, having a script which conforms to its material rather than a prior dramatic logic which shapes the material and finally, an editing style brought by the filmmaker’s attitude of “investigation” rather than of “presentation”. Kracauer saw the realist film not only as a balance between the realist and formalist tendencies in the filmmaker, but also as a balance between the documentary film and the story film which he saw exploited the medium’s potential optimally. The story then, which ideally was the found story, was bound to nature and was “discovered rather than contrived” and served to reveal the visual world to the spectator. Thus while montage and realist techniques like the depth of field and the long take were finally ways of rendering an event, Bazin realised the countless possibilities of film language which had, in the past been reduced to only a few selected techniques that had been institutionalized as the ‘cinema.’

Inherent to the realist tradition, whether it is with Bazin or Kracauer, is a deep wonder for the ambiguity and the mystery of nature and life and a belief in the harmony of man with the world. While classical editing operated with a logic prior to its representation, it nevertheless bound its spectators in an illusion of homogeneous reality, all the while actually fragmenting reality. But through realist cinema, Bazin saw the possibility to preserve the freedom of the spectator to choose his own interpretation of the object of event. As Andrew puts it, “cinema more than any other art is naturally able to capture and suggest the sense of a world which flows around and beyond us.” Bazin, seeing cinema as having come into existence to “serve man’s curiosity” believes in its ability to make man experience greater self-revelations. Even in the existential condition of the thrownness of man in the universe, the realist tradition in Bazin seeks for hope and the “self-creation as the purpose and excitement of existence.” Thus the purpose of cinema in the realist tradition is to cast away signification in order to” recover the sense of the world.”


Andrew, J. Dudley. The Major Film Theories: An Introduction. London: Oxford University Press, 1976

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.