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 for alternative futures. For example in Fritz Lang’s 1924 two-part DieNibelungen, the corpse of Siegfried — who, Kaes argues, consolidated the national body — was laid out on extended display; this gave German audiences the possibility of mourning the war dead, years before any national monument was erected.
Kaes’s project, then, is to apply his prodigious knowledge of Weimar culture to situating classic films within it in order to unpack for today’s viewers the contextual and intertextual references that might have been picked up by these films’ contemporary audiences. His opening placement of cinema itself is critical. During the war, film had served as propaganda for the home front, with the cinema as a place the community assembled for news bulletins that ultimately misled them about the war’s progress. In addition to describing a culture of going to the cinema to think about the war, Kaes also shows how, by the end of the war, filmmakers had come to understand that staged realism was not adequate to the experience: “Sharpened by the war’s assault on sight and sound, postwar films addressed questions of perception. They focused on the medium-specific difficulty of distinguishing between the record of visible reality and the subjective vision that necessarily distorts it”. If the cinema became a place to work out the trauma of war, then the attempt to respond to that trauma through the filmic medium also worked through the limits of that medium.
This conjunction between legacies of war and modernist filmic experimentation is developed in subsequent chapters, which move from setting out the ways film replayed the war’s tropes of mental instability and death to how it dealt with rebuilding the national psyche. The paradigm is Robert Wiene’s 1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which Kaes sees as actually the first film of the Great War. Its story of a somnambulist and an asylum director raises questions about the location of the monstrous in its ambiguity over who is insane versus who is simulating insanity. To do so, it disregards linear temporality and teases out the link between cinema and hypnosis. Likewise, Kaes shows how Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror, with its vampire, epidemic, and female hysteric, is in fact about mass death and self-sacrifice, about the inside and outside of a community. It too explores the uncanniness of film in its uncertain boundary between reality and hallucination, by specifically working with technological effects to materialize immaterial or phantasmagorical forces. Fritz Lang’s two-part Die Nibelungen is another film that experiments with the act of narration, this time epic, as it proposes an alternative national myth by consolidating the nation into the body of a fallen hero, unprepared for civilization, who is betrayed. And in Metropolis, Lang later revisits the war in both biblical and futuristic dimensions, by creating slippages between the modern shocks of the battlefield and those of the factory. In doing so, he again attempts to access cinema’s restorative potential, albeit more ambivalently.
These are just brief examples of the readings that Kaes offers up. And yet, it is important to Kaes in this book that we see none as absolute. For example, with its title adapted from Karl Marx, Kaes’s Metropolis chapter on the “Industrial Battlefield” associates those factory scenes to related issues including Americanism, industrial rationalization, and imagery of female cyborgs, as well as the 1927 “revolt of the masses” and the earlier worker’s revolution that resulted in the death of the activist Rosa Luxemburg. But it also configures the ethos of the film in relation to the Weimar Republic’s feeble compromise between Right and Left, and deals with its connections to expressionism’s religiosity, the biblical Apocalypse, and the Weimar fascination with Babylon. If this range seems somewhat overwhelming to hold inside a single frame, it is at times. But that associative promiscuity seems to also be Kaes’s point. Early on, he makes an argument for aesthetic complexity: “Films are never organic, unified wholes carrying a single message. Rather, they are fractured entities that must be read, like products of the unconscious, by means of their omissions and silences”. Shell Shock Cinema is a project of drawing out that complexity, of reading not in a way that is limiting, but one in which associations proliferate.
There is a specific reason that Kaes is trying to avoid an all-encompassing interpretation. In his talk at Cambridge, Kaes also posed another question: “What is the question to which Kracauer is the answer?” Siegfried Kracauer was a great cultural critic of the Weimar era who published in 1947 — from exile in the USA — the book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, in which he argued for the protofascistic tendencies of interwar German film. Kaes asked his question, if I recall correctly, somewhat glibly. But the intent was to historicize Kracauer, to frame him as responding to a series of his own cultural pressures while tidily theorizing those of Weimar cinema. Kaes argues that Kracauer’s text, which has become an ur-text for Weimar film studies, uses a methodology of “back-shadowing”; by looking back at the interwar period, Kracauer saw all films of the period pointing forward to the rise of German fascism, as the title of his study suggested. Kaes, by contrast, proposes a different vantage point: not backwards from 1933, but forwards from 1918. Post-traumatic film instead of pre-fascistic. Whereas, for example, Kracauer saw the character of Caligari, a madman who can provoke murder, as a presentiment of Hitler, Kaes pushes for a less deterministic approach by exploring the film’s narrative gaps: “Both the film and the platform of the National Socialists could be viewed, then, as commentaries on the mistrust and paranoia that categorized the early years of the Weimar Republic. However in contrast to the Nazis who constructed ‘outsiders’ (i.e., non-Aryan Others) as the cause of Germany’s problems, the film seems instead to point inward. At the end of his journey, Francis indeed discovers the monster — but the monster from outside turns out to have been inside all along. The evil stranger is no other than the respected director of the local mental ward”. From this perspective, the film’s politics, instead of being situated in authoritarianism, belong to its anti-mimetic stance: the unreliability of its narration and the visual rhetoric that reviewers of the time associated with insanity.
This imperative to look forwards rather than backwards strikes me as one of the richest threads of Shell Shock Cinema. Even though Kaes has been working through this argument for a while within the academic community in talks and essays, the book form increases the likelihood of this less reductive historical perspective reaching a wider audience. The Weimar Republic has long been invoked in popular culture in order to suggest a glorified moment on the precipice of “bad stuff,” even as scholarship on Weimar culture and politics has shifted from the idea of a vibrant moment cut short at 1933 to the understanding that German fascism was one of many radical experiments of the period. By continuing in this line of more open time thought, Kaes offers a model for making parallels to the Weimar Republic more nuanced. Instead of thinking ahead toward catastrophe, why not spend more time understanding the processes already in place? What paranoiac fantasies haunt our own cultural productions? What is the question to which they are the answer?