nthposition online magazine

Shell shock cinema

by Tom Ruffles

[ bookreviews ]

Under the influence of Siegfried Kracauer's 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, discussions of films made during the Weimar Republic have generally had one eye on them as a precursor to Nazi cinema. Anton Kaes's scope is broader, demonstrating how extra understanding can be gained by examining German films against the background of the Great War and the birth of Weimar, rather than the Republic's end. As Kaes puts it, while he is as interested as Kracauer in examining how the republican experiment was displaced by Nazism, for him, ‘Weimar culture is as much post-traumatic as it is pre-fascistic for Kracauer.' By shifting the point of focus to the beginning, Kaes is able to dig into the roots of the period's cinema.

He sees the term ‘shell shock cinema' as a metaphor, the nervous collapse experienced by frontline soldiers extended to the psyche of German society as a whole in the aftermath of defeat in 1918. He argues that a number of the films which we see as most representative of that troubled period resulted from this national trauma, even though they were not ostensibly war films. In Freudian terms, this repetition compulsion was a way of working through the shock of war by constantly restaging it. The films, in effect, were a manifestation of what we would now term post-traumatic stress disorder, applied to the entire nation but mediated by genres such as melodrama, epic and science fiction. They did not have to be explicit to evoke the shared experience of the nation; just as the causation of shell shock was not necessarily accessible to the consciousness of the affected solder but nevertheless showed in bodily and psychological symptoms, so too, with the entire nation, films were an outlet for impulses that were submerged. They represented a return of the repressed. And extreme mental states were paralleled by an extreme aesthetic which itself became a foundation for modern film language that reverberates to this day.

In order to elaborate this thesis, Kaes concentrates on four films, though he draws in many others. All are extremely well known, but he still finds much that is new to say about them and the times in which they were created. They are Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, F W Murnau's Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror, and two by Fritz Lang, Die Nibelungen and Metropolis. He notes that not all Weimarian films should be considered part of shell shock cinema, and the interpretation of the four he has chosen is not exhausted by seeing them in those terms, but they gain an extra richness by examining them through the experience of war and its aftermath.

Of the four major films considered, Caligari is the one that can be seen most clearly to articulate an immediate response to the pressures, physical and psychological, of war. In addition to information about the film's origins and production history, the chapter is a peg on which to hang extensive discussions of hysteria, war neurosis and the harsh methods of psychiatry in trying to distinguish shock from malingering that verged on the sadistic; psychoanalysis (Francis recounting his story as talking cure); and the uncanny: "There are ghosts... they are all around us" resonates well beyond the film's frame. Kaes sees Caligari as "a bold beginning" in engaging with the war, but it is also a political film, because it runs counter to official efforts to promote an image of the conflict as heroic resistance. In its rejection of the canons of realism, it managed to record the chaos and splintering of the wartime experience far more effectively than a film explicitly about the war could have done.

The title of the chapter devoted to Nosferatu, "The Return of the Dead", provides a shorthand for the correspondence between film and the emotional devastation wrought by the war on the German people. The naive Hutter is sent blithely East by his cynical elders to face unspeakable evil, mirroring the generation of 1914 sent off to fight, only to return, if at all, irredeemably damaged by what they have experienced. Hutter meets a monster with an insatiable need for blood who then invades the home front, represented by Hutter's wife Ellen, and the ensuing mass death is stopped only by self-sacrifice. As Kaes pithily sums it up: "A lost generation indeed." We even learn that Nosferatu's nom-de-plume, Orlok, is similar to oorlog, the Dutch word for war. It is war, with its accompanying disease and disruption, that infects the social fabric with devastating effect.

But Kaes moves beyond this simple correspondence to disinter further meaning, for example the vampire as anti-Semitic symbol. Rats, which feature so strongly in the film, were associated in the popular mind with conditions in the trenches. But they also tapped into pre-existing anti-Semitic imagery, with Jews portrayed as carriers of infectious diseases, associations briskly adopted by Nazi propaganda. Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and in 1916 was invaded by Romania, causing thousands of Jewish refugees to travel to Berlin, adding to those who had moved to the city from Russia and Poland to escape pogroms and epidemics. This settlement of Ostjuden created resentment, especially as the incomers resisted integration, and an already stigmatised group became ready scapegoats for defeat, summed up in a 1919 pamphlet entitled "The Contribution of Jewry to Germany's Collapse." Nosferatu links together these ideas of the destruction of the community by the monstrous alien outsider who introduces disease, chaos and death to the innocent.

Fritz Lang's Dr Mabuse, the Gambler is mentioned in passing, a film that would fit well into a canon of shell shock films, but Kaes moves briskly on to Die Nibelungen At first sight far removed from the aftermath of the First World War, focusing on mythical characters from a heroic past, Lang's epic nonetheless features such motifs as honour, loyalty, betrayal, obsession and revenge - whatever the consequences - that were still preoccupations in 1922, when it opened. Kaes examines such disparate elements as the saga's literary and dramatic antecedents, the links to an assumption of supposed Aryan supremacy as denoted by Siegfied's blondness (particularly relevant when the French government used large numbers of black colonial troops to occupy the Rhineland), and the popularity of body culture.

Even the idea of the army being stabbed in the back had its parallel in Siefried's own betrayal and death. The destruction of the hero becomes an allegorical rendering of the destruction of the national body, a downfall brought about by an adherence to a chivalric code of honour that it was felt was not shared by Germany's opponents. In a period characterised by internecine conflict between Right and Left, the saga's emphasis on mutually assured destruction would have had a powerful resonance. And for the Right, it was a wish-fulfilment fantasy," the heroic apocalypse", based on an underpinning invocation of blood and soil, that had been denied to them in the war (though one that Hitler did his best to arrange in 1945).

The final film dealt with in depth has moved further away in time from the war than the others, and the echoes are quieter, but Metropolis for Kaes still has things to say about the war and its legacy. The unease with technology out of control and crushing the human spirit was for Lang part of the unstoppable progress of industrialism, propelled by its internal momentum, that had inexorably led to conflict. War was murder on an industrial scale, a by-product of modernity, and the German defeat a doomed attempt to hold it back in the name of German idealism. Kaes posits that these issues are still with us, hence the film's continuing popularity. Yet of course, if Metropolis could be read so simply it would not warrant the amount of attention it has been given by commentators. Lang's attitude to machinery is not entirely negative and reactionary; he does not, with Oswald Spengler, consider machines to be simply satanic, even if for Freder they are to be identified with Moloch. They are also beautiful, functional and create cities of awe and wonder, albeit at a high human cost.

Concerns around Fordism and the alienation of mass-production were widely debated in Germany in the 1920s, and the old long-cherished ideals that Germans were told they had fought for on the battlefield seemed beyond reach in peacetime. The film's ambivalence about industrialism, at once reviled and embraced, echoed that being played out in society at large, where the economic stabilisation of the mid-1920s bred an expanding middle class and desire for consumption with a simultaneous fear for the loss of values that were considered to be distinctively German. The robot Maria is designed to be a means of destruction, but significantly she cannot be distinguished from a human until the moment when she is burned as a witch. Human and machine have become one. Counterbalancing this technological unease is the strand of the film dealing with religion: the loss of the war had precipitated a religious crisis which Lang tapped into for much of the iconography he employed. Maria, seen in religious terms, urges the workers to wait for a mediator, but they do not listen and, in a restaging of the doomed workers' revolution of 1918-19, rush to their own destruction. The utopian reconciliation at the end between hand and head, mediated by the heart, however, is more optimistic than the end of Die Nibelungen, if somewhat improbable.

Illuminating as Kaes' analyses are, they do raise questions. Germany suffered a humiliating defeat, but while other European countries experienced trauma as well, they did not make films that can be characterised as shell shock cinema. He provides statistics on the German forces and their appalling losses, but such figures were replicated across the major combatants. Was it the defeat itself, and the harsh penalties imposed after the Treaty of Versailles, or was it the defeat allied to some self-absorbed aspect of the German soul (a word much used at the time) and its expression in Kultur that acted as the stimulus for this remarkable flowering of cinematic art? Why didn't Britain or France, or for that matter the countries which made up the former Austro-Hungarian empire, produce anything similar? Or did the effects of war, plus the added consequences of defeat, need specific structural conditions within the film industry that were not present elsewhere?

It would also have been informative to have had these exemplars placed not just within the social context of the period, illuminating as this is as presented in the book, but also within a wider consideration of film production in Germany, to see how representative they were of the sorts of films Germans were seeing when they went out on a Saturday night. Kaes is making a bold claim for these four films and a few others as elaborations of shell shock applied to an entire society, the continuation of war by other, internalised, means; but he does not answer the question: to what extent are they representative? In other words, precisely how shell shocked was German cinema as a whole? Kaes calls the four ‘the most prominent', but they are the best known anyway, and his case would have been strengthened by including more, lesser-known, examples than the ones he gives. Without this wider examination (admittedly hampered by the loss of so many films from the silent period) and while yoked to auteur theory which privileges the work of certain individuals - here notably Murnau and Lang - it is impossible to estimate the salience of shell shock cinema among total film production during the period.

There is too the issue of how much meaning it is legitimate to read into the cultural products of another era. There is a danger of over-interpreting in order to force the films into a preconceived approach. We are trying to look into minds, and especially the subconscious parts of those minds not available even to their original owners, to find aspects of what they produced that can be fitted into an overarching framework. Thus Kaes points out that on 9 November 1918, the day that the Kaiser abdicated and Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the establishment of the republic, cinemagoers could see titles such as Sins of the Fathers, The Husband's Murder, Lost Daughters and Under the Sign of Guilt (one suspects that receipts were down on that particular day).

Of course it would be bizarre if such a profound event as a pan-European war had no effect whatsoever on scriptwriters, but it seems simplistic to map these film titles on to our understanding of the latter days of the Second Empire as if they were some kind of oedipal word-association game that betrayed the state of the generalised German attitude to authority in the face of catastrophic defeat. This type of mapping also has to be considered against the lead time of a film from concept to exhibition, and the surprisingly speedy conclusion of the war. When Kaes argues that such films "betray a historical unconscious of which neither the filmmaker nor the audience was likely to have been aware," we do not know whether there really is a causal link that is somehow sublimated but leaks out without producers and consumers realising it, or we are reading too much into the available evidence.

Kaes notes that the bulk of Weimar output consisted of formulaic genre films, and in large quantities: between 1920 and 1927 an average of five hundred feature films were released annually (although numbers were declining through to 1933), and even though some 80% are lost, that is still a lot of film for scholars to plough through on the Steenbeck to see if they exhibit the same tendencies as those Kaes identifies in his star exhibits. A rebalancing is underway to provide a more rounded picture of the period, as for example indicated by the title of a forthcoming multi-authored volume on the subject edited by Christian Rogowski, The Many Faces of Weimar Cinema: Rediscovering Germany's Filmic Legacy. The scene-setting in Kaes' book is refreshing as it discusses films produced during the First World War that are so often ignored in discussions of German cinema, as if there were nothing noteworthy before Caligari in 1919, apart from isolated examples like Stellan Rye's The Student of Prague of 1913 and Paul Wegener's first two Golem films, and those only because they sit comfortably in a narrative of the German fantastic.

These reservations do not diminish Kaes's achievement; rather it is a testament to the power of his analysis that he stimulates such questions. In a crowded market he has found new and interesting things to say about Weimar's cinema and the battered society which fashioned it, and his book is a valuable addition to the ever-growing literature on one of the most fascinating periods in film history.