Book Review: Shell Shock Cinema

Shell Shock Cinema by Anton Kaes
Princeton University Press, 2010


As someone who teaches film studies at the college level, I’m sorry to say that I think a lot of academic film writing is garbage. Too much of what passes for “serious” film writing is nothing more than literary theory — particularly as it relates to Freud and/or Marx — imported wholesale by academics who lack a thorough knowledge of film history and aesthetics. For some classes I am, unfortunately, forced to teach from such books from time to time. (If I have a say in the matter, I always use Film Art or Film History by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, two keen analytical writers and true cinephiles whose work straddles the line between academic and mainstream film criticism.) I mention all of this because I recently read a terrific film studies book that I could not recommend more highly: Shell Shock Cinema by Anton Kaes. Not only is this academic study an impeccably researched work of scholarship, it also offers penetrating and new insights into its subject matter — the massively influential and already much-written about movies of Germany’s Weimar era. More specifically, Kaes persuasively argues that several key works of what is often-termed “German Expressionist cinema,” a phrase the author barely uses, can be seen as coded responses to the first World War. This reverses the trend of most academic writing about silent German film, which, following the lead of the critic Siegfried Kracauer, has tended to view the masterpieces of Expressionism as harbingers of the rise of Nazism. Kaes’ view that Weimar-era movies were looking back rather than forward makes so much sense that one wonders why it took 80-odd years for someone to mount such an argument.

caligari The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Kaes’ book is structured around a close reading of four movies: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), and Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1927). Proceeding in chronological order, Kaes shows how each of these films can be seen as “entities that arise from and exist in concrete historical moments; that supply aesthetic responses to economic, social, political, ideological and institutional determinants; and that still resonate with us today.” Kaes makes good on this claim by specifically analyzing how all four films feature characters who seem to be exhibiting the symptoms of “shell shock,” a then-new and controversial neurological disorder occurring in soldiers who had participated in the first “technological war.” Many German government officials apparently felt that shell-shocked soldiers were mere “malingerers” who were faking psychological illnesses as a means of avoiding having to serve in the front lines. “War psychiatrists” were then brought in to essentially debunk the shell shock phenomenon, sometimes administering electroshock therapy to its sufferers — not so much to “cure” them than to scare them into agreeing to return to active duty. Is it any wonder then, Kaes asks, that the villain of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the evil director of a mental hospital who may be crazy himself? Or that the protagonist is a patient suffering from hallucinations induced by some unspoken trauma? If there is one flaw in Shell Shock Cinema it’s that this first provocative analysis is the most revelatory one in the book.

nosferatu Nosferatu

In Kaes’ primary reading of Nosferatu, the mysterious title vampire — a character continually associated with the plague — and his apocalyptic arrival in the small (fictional) German town of Wisborg is analogous to the mass death that swept across the country during the Great War. Kaes sees real-estate agent Thomas Hutter’s voyage to Castle Orlock as representing a soldier’s journey to the “eastern” front, and his wife Ellen’s adventures back home as standing in for the homefront experiences of a typical soldier’s wife. But Kaes also wisely refuses to limit his analysis to this single interpretation and also considers that the plot may be read as a disturbing anti-Semitic metaphor for then-contemporary fears about the migration of Jews from Eastern Europe. (I personally don’t buy this interpretation but am glad the author chose to include it.) Kaes then moves on to Die Nibelungen, analyzing its two parts as a reflection of changing German attitudes towards the concept of wartime heroism (i.e., the first part, Siegfired, valorizes fallen soldiers and arguably glorifies war while the second, Kriemhild’s Revenge, offers a somewhat surprising corrective in that it underlines the pointlessness and insanity of revenge). But Fritz Lang’s mythical period epic is also the film that seems to offer the most coded response to World War I and is therefore the book’s least interesting passage. Things pick back up with Kaes’ climactic discussion of Metropolis, a notorious commercial flop on its initial release, which many historians see as representing the final nail in the coffin of German Expressionism. Here, Kaes invokes Karl Marx — in a manner wholly appropriate — in his analysis of Metropolis‘ class struggle as a kind of “industrial battle” in which the members of the working class are seen as human fodder for an insatiable war god.

nibelungen Die Nibelungen

The analysis of this quartet of movies is followed by a swift conclusion that illustrates the connection between Weimar-era German cinema and American film noir, and a discussion of how the lessons of Expressionism remain relevant today. While Kaes could have undoubtedly viewed many other silent German movies through his shell-shocked lens — I think Murnau’s Faust, in particular, would’ve benefitted from the treatment — I applaud his decision to offer his theory as a primer rather than anything more exhaustive; not including the endnotes and bibliography, the entire text runs a succinct and imminently readable 216 pages. The fact that all four of the films under discussion are widely available on home video should only enhance the accessibility of Shell Shock Cinema: Die Nibelungen, Nosferatu and Metropolis have all been restored by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation and are available in splendid-quality Blu-ray editions (and Caligari, already available in a good quality DVD, will be released on Blu-ray following a new Murnau Foundation restoration later this year). As someone who devotes at least one class to teaching German Expressionism every semester, I am eternally grateful to Kaes and plan on using this text in future classes. Shell Shock Cinema is an ideal book for anyone — novices and experts alike — interested in one of the richest and most exciting periods in cinema’s history.

Thanks to David Hanley for making me aware of this book. Shell Shock Cinema can be ordered from Amazon here:

Six clips from the Murnau Foundation’s new restoration of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be viewed here:

metropolis1 Metropolis


About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

12 responses to “Book Review: Shell Shock Cinema

  • enchantedbyfilm

    I agree so absolutely with you!! I used this book so much in my research for my dissertation on German Expressionist cinema!! I do disagree about there being a lot of garbage in terms of academic writing on film, but this book is so very fantastic. My uni library only had one copy of it but fortunately I managed to have it out forever with no one researving it 🙂 It’s my lecturer who told me about the book 😀

    • michaelgloversmith

      So glad you read and enjoyed it. I had a feeling it would be up your alley!

      • enchantedbyfilm

        oh I absolutely loved it!! 🙂 I love anything to do with German Expressionism though!! 🙂 My favourite book on the subject though is probably Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen. It’s not particularly academic in the way that other books on the subject are, but I loved reading it during my dissertation research as it made me think a lot about the aesthetics of Expressionism, and there are so many films mentioned that I had never heard of before as they are so little known/unavailable etc, which was great as it opened my eyes to them.

      • michaelgloversmith

        The Haunted Screen is fantastic. I agree that it captures the spirit of Expressionism better than any other book on the subject. I am absolutely dying to read her bio of Murnau, which I don’t think has ever been translated into English.

      • enchantedbyfilm

        oh I haven’t heard of that one!! Although if it hasn’t been translated that is probably why :-/ I had Eisner’s book out of the library for over a year and a half and it had all my notes in and everything which I did rub the majority out before handing it back to the library. I should have rubbed them all out really but I was in a rush. I would love to buy it but it’s quite expensive, although worth every penny I think. Murnau is such a wonderful filmmaker, I don’t know much about his personal life.

  • Susan Doll

    Am ordering this book today. Thanks for the tip. Also, totally agree with you about academic writing. It is badly phrased, jargon-based garbage whose authors take delight in alienating readers rather than enlightening them. I wrote one article in this style, and I vowed never again. It was everything that my years as an editor told me was wrong.

  • John Charet

    This sounds like a great post. I will comment on this later because in a few hours I have to go to my college class. I will give an overall reply of the post later though:) Keep up the great work:) I also left a comment under your Groundhog day post:)

  • John Charet

    Interesting stuff. I know how you feel about most film academic writing. In fact, I bet some of the best ones in the business will readily admit that it is subjective at best. You know its interesting that Metropolis is the film that benefits the most from these type of discussions (the political content of the film). Although it has been said that Metropolis was the nail in the coffin for German Expressionism, what about Lang’s Spies (1928), M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)? Were these low-budget affairs by comparison? In other words, did Metropolis signal the end of big-budget films that dabbled in German Expressionism?

    • michaelgloversmith

      I think those later Lang films are often not considered “Expressionist” not because of their lower budgets but because they aren’t as aggressively stylized as METROPOLIS in their mise-en-scene. You know what’s funny though? Even though I love METROPOLIS, I think it’s a little overrated. It’s one of those examples of a movie being far more beloved by casual movie fans (many of whom haven’t seen Lang’s other German films) than by hardcore cinephiles (almost all of whom prefer at least some of Lang’s other German films). There is no doubt in my mind that the MABUSE films and SPIES are better than METROPOLIS.

  • Beer Movie

    Great write up. I am going to see if I can source a copy of the book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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