ANTON KAES WAS JUST finishing Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War when I heard him speak at the University of Cambridge in May 2008. He began by framing the project in classic New Historicist terms: what is the question to which the emergence of the text is the answer? A professor of German and Film & Media Studies at UC Berkeley, Kaes’s is one of the names most associated with scholarship on Weimar culture, both for his own publications and as co-editor of the influential “Weimar and Now” book series from the University of California Press. Simply put, Kaes has spent much of his career thinking in nuanced ways about interwar Germany and its afterlives.
At Cambridge, Kaes explained that, as he looked back over so much material, the problem he kept returning to was why no films of the 1920s seemed (on the surface) to deal with the First World War that immediately preceded the period. The answer he came to, the one this book elaborates, is that they actually did, just not directly. Rather, by tracing how silent films displaced and replayed Germany’s defeat in uncanny ways, Kaes proposes an alternative vantage point on a period that remains powerfully ingrained in our historical imagination. In Shell Shock Cinema, Kaes shows us how and where to look in order to see the invisible made visible on screens during the interwar period, over and over again and leans into the many studies of psychological trauma soldiers suffered during and after the war, using the period’s language of shell shock to argue for the pervasiveness with which the war itself functioned like a psychic wound in film of the period, unresolved and looming in its repeated appearances.
As Kaes puts it: “The term ‘shell shock,’ which doctors used to diagnose frontline soldiers suffering nervous breakdowns, provides a metaphor for the invisible though lasting psychological wounds of World War I. […] Just as shell shock signified a broad array of symptoms, the movies of this shell shock cinema took on a variety of forms. But despite their manifest differences, all of these films found a way to restage the shock of war and defeat without ever showing military combat”. When one film storyline after the next followed narrators trying to reconstruct an uncertain past (as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920) or a vampire figure between life and death sleeping in rat-infested dirt (as in Nosferatu, 1922), this was cinema re-enacting experiences of war.
These were, literally, post-traumatic films. Kaes tells us that war psychiatrists of the time used the metaphor of re-running a filmstrip for their work with hypnosis in handling trauma. Shell Shock Cinema makes the claim that Weimar cinema followed the model of the psychoanalytic talking cure, where repetition leads to interpretation. Films then offered a way of working through the war, something necessary not only for those who had served in the field, but for society as a whole. (Among the main reasons that collective understanding of World War I tended not to find surface expression even afterwards was that censorship had kept the war itself relatively abstract for those on the home front, allowing families to see little of what was really going on beyond what and who came home.) The unstable situation this created was further heightened when the ultimate defeat of Germany resulted not from a glorious final battle, but in a ceasefire. In this moment, cinema allowed...read more