Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Shell Shock Cinema

Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War

Anton Kaes
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 328
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Shell Shock Cinema
    Book Description:

    Shell Shock Cinemaexplores how the classical German cinema of the Weimar Republic was haunted by the horrors of World War I and the the devastating effects of the nation's defeat. In this exciting new book, Anton Kaes argues that masterworks such asThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, The Nibelungen, andMetropolis, even though they do not depict battle scenes or soldiers in combat, engaged the war and registered its tragic aftermath. These films reveal a wounded nation in post-traumatic shock, reeling from a devastating defeat that it never officially acknowledged, let alone accepted.

    Kaes uses the term "shell shock"--coined during World War I to describe soldiers suffering from nervous breakdowns--as a metaphor for the psychological wounds that found expression in Weimar cinema. Directors like Robert Wiene, F. W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang portrayed paranoia, panic, and fear of invasion in films peopled with serial killers, mad scientists, and troubled young men. Combining original close textual analysis with extensive archival research, Kaes shows how this post-traumatic cinema of shell shock transformed extreme psychological states into visual expression; how it pushed the limits of cinematic representation with its fragmented story lines, distorted perspectives, and stark lighting; and how it helped create a modernist film language that anticipated film noir and remains incredibly influential today.

    A compelling contribution to the cultural history of trauma,Shell Shock Cinemaexposes how German film gave expression to the loss and acute grief that lay behind Weimar's sleek façade.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3119-7
    Subjects: History, Art & Art History, Film Studies, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    “May 9th, 1919. A Friday. Paul Simon returned from the World War.” This laconic notation opens Edgar Reitz’s 1984 television seriesHeimat, an eleven-part chronicle of German history in the twentieth century.¹ On that Friday in May 1919, Paul, a common soldier, is released from a prisoner-of-war camp and marches home. With the war over, a new life begins for him and for the nation. Or does it?

    Striding through the village, Paul pauses a few times: how strange everything looks to the returning soldier! When he finally arrives at his parents’ house, relatives and neighbors gather and bombard him...

  6. 1 The War at Home
    (pp. 7-44)

    The movie, grainy and silent, begins in the middle. “Groundwater!” flashes on the screen in an intertitle, followed by a view of a young soldier trapped in a collapsed trench. He is buried under a jumble of planks and beams, and gushing water threatens to drown him. A close-up captures his distorted face from above. Like an animal pinned against the wall, he squirms to free himself, his arms flailing. Terrified by the rising groundwater, he screams for help. The camera stares at him, motionless, as if trapped itself. Cut to two soldiers who hack and saw their way through...

  7. 2 Tales from the Asylum
    (pp. 45-86)

    On February 25, 1920, a day before Robert Wiene’sThe Cabinet of Dr. Caligariopened in Berlin film theaters, Dr. Sigmund Freud delivered a written memorandum on the electric shock treatment of war neurotics to a Viennese courthouse.¹ Freud had been asked to serve as an expert witness in a much-publicized malpractice suit in which a patient, a common soldier by the name of Walter Kauders, accused his psychiatrist of torture, including solitary confinement in a padded cell and treatment with electric currents. He also charged his doctor with misdiagnosing him as a malingerer who had allegedly simulated his symptoms...

  8. 3 The Return of the Undead
    (pp. 87-130)

    “Generation of 1914—close your eyes and a host of images leaps to mind: of students packing off to war with flowers in their rifles and patriotic songs on their lips, too young, too innocent to suspect what bloody rites of passage awaited them.”¹ Thus begins Robert Wohl’s influential study of the generation of 1914, the “lost generation” born between 1880 and 1900 whose life was doomed by the Great War. Wohl traces the fate of this young European generation whose suffering and sacrifice have been recorded in autobiographical literature as well as novels, poems, plays—and, I would like...

  9. 4 Myth, Murder, and Revenge
    (pp. 131-166)

    In December 1916, the German Kaiser offered the nation an unusual Christmas present: he dedicated the Berlin Reichstag building to “the German people.” Workers mounted massive bronze letters atop the classical columns below the frieze that read:Dem deutschen Volke(To the German People). This unusual dedication had been part of architect Paul Wallot’s original plan for the Reichstag’s opening in 1894. The Kaiser, however, objected to the phrasing’s implied democratic message and delayed the installation. Finally, at the end of 1916, he agreed to the symbolic gesture as a way to thank the German people for their sacrifices during...

  10. 5 The Industrial Battlefield
    (pp. 167-210)

    What caused the war? From the beginning of the conflict numerous theories sought to interpret the first technological war within larger philosophical frameworks.¹ Conservative cultural critics in particular had little doubt that large-scale bloodshed was the inescapable result of Germany’s accelerated industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Modernity and modernization, which had unsettled the very identity of Germany as a “nation of culture” (Kulturnation), soon became embattled concepts. Expressionist painters (starting in 1905) as well as poets and dramatists (beginning in 1911) used modernist techniques to oppose modernity. Discontent and anxiety about the increasing dominance of instrumental...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 211-216)

    Handwritten in white chalk, the wordEndeconcludes G. W. Pabst’s 1930 filmWestfront 1918, Germany’s first motion picture explicitly about World War I. “The End” is followed by a large question mark and an even larger exclamation point—conflicting signals that make us uncertain about where things stand. The film is over, but what about the war? Indeed, the question mark makes one wonder whether any lessons were learned. Beyond that, it blurs the distinction between the world of the film and that of the film’s audience. Will the traumatic events that we have just witnessed on-screen stay with...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 217-250)
  13. Weimar Cinema on DVD
    (pp. 251-266)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 267-298)
  15. Index
    (pp. 299-312)