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.
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.
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.
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: http://tinyurl.com/mlcs7us
Six clips from the Murnau Foundation’s new restoration of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be viewed here: http://diastor.ch/2014/01/27/six-videos-of-new-caligari-restoration-now-online/