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Reviewed by:
  • Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War
  • Peter Fritzsche
Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War. Anton Kaes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. Pp. xi + 312. $29.95 (cloth).

In this exciting, immensely learned study, Anton Kaes explores the features of “post-traumatic cinema” in the Weimar Republic (ix). He takes up four classic Weimar films (Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, and Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen and Metropolis) to investigate how film registered the traumatic shocks of the First World War through the failure or insufficiency of mimetic representation and symbolization. Although Kaes begins his analysis with a highly useful study of documentary-style film during and right after the war, he does not focus on how the postwar cinema featured the war itself—the focus of any number of popular army and navy movies in the 1920s—but on how other films displaced the war into domestic, mythic, and imaginary settings. In contrast to Siegfried Kracauer’s highly influential argument detailing the pre-fascistic elements of Weimar’s movie culture, Kaes underscores the post-traumatic aspects in a nuanced and wide-ranging analysis. Without ever showing trench warfare or military combat, the films operated as machines of translation, restaging “military aggression and defeat” as “domestic tableaux of crime and horror.” Weimar cinema transformed “vague feelings of betrayal, sacrifice, and wounded pride into melodrama, myth, or science fiction,” and they replayed “the fear of invasion and injury” as well as the “sense of paranoia and panic” (3). With the ten-minute fragment that is all that remains of Georg Jacoby’s Toward the Light (1918), Kaes brilliantly provides an example of how film followed a “spatial trajectory” that moved from “the trenches to the sanitarium to the living room” to illustrate “the gradual intrusion of the battlefield into the home front” (9). At each station, the traumtic experience of front-line shell shock and national military defeat worked itself in concealed and repressed ways to constitute “Weimar’s historical unconscious” (2). Even though most representations of the war from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front to Ernst Jünger’s fictionalized diary Storm of Steel to Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s film Westfront 1918 underscore the cognitive dissonances between battlefront and homefront, Kaes [End Page 941] deploys the notion of trauma and shell-shock more broadly to cover both locations and to make authoritative statements about the mood of Weimar culture more generally. Ultimately, Kaes uses trauma to draw attention—pace Kracauer—to an “alternative history” that did not lead inevitably to National Socialism (5). Unfortunately, this intriguing thought is dropped almost as soon as it is introduced.

What makes Shell Shock Cinema such an exciting study is the cinematographic method Kaes employs as he pulls in, pans, and pulls back to explore the cultural and technical complexities of the films under discussion. His interpretation of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for example, opens with an illuminating discussion of the psychiatric evaluation of shell shock and the hermeneutics of suspicion that led most experts to perceive malingerers and cowards lurking within war neurotics. This sets up his contention that the perspective of the victimized, electro-shocked, misunderstood patient is key, allowing him to explore the themes of “distrust, deception, and paranoia” (48). Kaes goes on to explore how flashbacks call into question “naive notions about narrative linearity and historical truth” (54). The intrusion of ghosts and spirits, which evoked not only the thousands of dead, but also exuberant efforts to reestablish contact with them, was something cinema was especially good at projecting with fantastic, shadowy lighting and camera angles. Kaes is a compelling storyteller, providing excellent sidebar analyses of séances in Weimar’s private rooms and hypnosis on its stages, as well as an astute observer of the claustrophobic stage-setting and tight camera work, which created “shock effects” that “contributed to the emergence of a modernist film language” (4). Kaes’s analysis of Nosferatu is also a superb intellectual history of ghosts, untimely death, and generational and gender resentments in the postwar period. Kaes makes a compelling...


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