Review – Anton Kaes, Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War (Princeton 2009)

What part do movies play in making psychological trauma visible? This is the question Tony Kaes poses at the outset of his new book on the cinema of Weimar Germany. While this cinema has generated enormous scholarly interest ever since Siegfried Kracauer’s landmark From Caligari to Hitler (1947), Kaes’ study represents a major departure from earlier approaches. Drawing on a growing body of work on trauma, the history of psychiatry, and World War I, he places this crucial chapter of modern cultural history within an entirely new analytic framework.

For historians of medicine and psychiatry, the central interest here will lie in Kaes’ claim that shell-shock holds the key to unlocking Weimar cinema’s complex narratives, images, and themes. The experience of trauma, he argues, was Weimar’s “historical unconscious”, and its films re-enacted the effects this experience had both on individual combatants and on German society as a whole. Just as traumatic events are repressed and yet return involuntarily in the form of flashbacks and other symptoms, so too Weimar cinema returned obsessively to the invisible wounds of the war. In making this claim, Kaes argues against the grain of Kracauer’s book, which treats Weimar films as a series of ominous variations on the rise of Nazism. Shifting the focus to the Great War and its aftermath, Kaes pulls together a wide variety of sources in weaving his account of how the cinema of the Weimar period worked through the shocks and aftershocks, both psychic and social, of this conflict.

A key moment in Kaes’ exposition concerns the encounter between one of the foremost representatives of wartime psychiatry – the Viennese physician Julius Wagner-Jauregg (later awarded a Nobel prize for his discovery of the malaria cure for progressive paralysis) — and the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Serving as expert witness at Wagner-Jauregg’s postwar trial, on charges that he had overseen the use of a punitive form of electrotherapy against soldiers suspected of malingering, Freud criticized the manner in which wartime practitioners had become entangled in an irresolvable conflict between their duties to the state and to their patients.

In an ingenious reading, Kaes traces the way that this encounter and the issues it raised are re-enacted in the narrative and structure of one of the most celebrated films of the Weimar era, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).  The story concerns a fairground hypnotist, Dr. Caligari, whose medium, Cesare, murders several inhabitants of a provincial town. Through its use of expressionistic sets and its themes of crime, somnambulism, and hypnosis (which, like electrotherapy, had been widely used to treat war neurotics) the film creates a fractured, hallucinatory landscape of terror and madness. This is further accentuated by its use of a frame-device: the story is narrated as a series of flashbacks by a young man, Francis, who relates his discovery that Caligari is actually the director of the local insane asylum, who has fallen under the spell of a manuscript written by an 18th century experimenter with hypnosis. In a final twist, the unreliability of the narrative is exposed at the film’s end by the revelation that Francis is himself a patient in the insane asylum. The film concludes with the asylum’s director promising to cure Francis.

If on a thematic level, the Caligari figure stands in for the Wagner-Jaureggs of the wartime psychiatric establishment, Kaes suggests that on another level the film itself doubles as a psychoanalytic session. Freud’s disciple Ernst Simmel, who by the war’s end was treating soldiers with a combination of psychotherapeutic methods, likened the recovery of traumatic memory through hypnosis to the “unrolling” of a filmic narrative. Francis’ narrative is in this sense a form of talking-cure: as if under hypnosis, the film of his traumatic memory “rolls again.” Kaes thus situates The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in a context shaped by debates about military psychiatry, shell-shock, and malingering, as well as by questions about the perception and representation of a world in which traditional norms and values have been radically overturned.

In subsequent chapters he follows a related set of concerns through his analyses of several other major films of the era — Nosferatu, The Nibelungen, and Metropolis — many of them populated by psychologically disturbed, amnesiac, or violence-prone characters, and marked by a paralyzing concern with death. Though he sticks for the most part to canonical films, Kaes also devotes space to a handful of lesser-known movies, most of them now lost or surviving only in fragmentary form, including Towards the Light (1918), an account of hysterical blindness and its cure; and Nerves (1919), a drama depicting the people of Munich in the grip of a postwar epidemic of nervous panic. Kaes’ analysis works best when he is dealing with these early films; at times in his discussion of other films the connection to the war becomes too indirect. Yet he is persuasive in showing how the “unabated presence of trauma in German society” shaped not simply the content of the era’s films but their formal repertoire as well. In its search for a new means of expression capable of capturing the “post-traumatic” world of Weimar Germany, the cinema of the period, he argues, contributed decisively to the birth of modern film language.

Andreas Killen, City College of New York and the Graduate Center

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