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  • Cultures of Confinement:Health, Illness, and Madness in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Magic Mountain
  • Robert Heynen (bio)

In an article on war neuroses in Weimar Germany, Jason Crouthamel recounts the story of a disabled veteran's unusual challenge to medical and political authority in the aftermath of World War I:

At a 1921 Berlin city assembly meeting, witnesses testified that a psychologically-disabled war victim under the pseudonym "Dr. Franzke-Rudolph" used false papers to disguise himself as a medical doctor in order to infiltrate his pension and health-care office. Once established in the administration area of the welfare office, this individual began to "incite rebellion" and, according to the police, attempted to set up a "communist headquarters" for the revolution led by welfare recipients. Local papers reported that in his clash with police just before he was led off to an asylum, the would-be doctor declared that the health-care administrators, insurance court clerks and doctors were all "mentally ill" and he called for a new system led by war victims themselves.1

Dr. Franzke-Rudolph's direct action was an astute and nuanced piece of political theater that pointed to a number of issues facing German veterans, most notably around access to social supports. His utopian plan for setting up a "communist headquarters" highlighted the extent to which questions of social welfare, health, and illness had become politicized, with anti-psychiatry ideas influencing the broader left-wing revolutionary movements of the post-World War I period.2 And, his subsequent confinement [End Page 683] in an asylum reflected a tactic used frequently by authorities seeking to suppress those movements.

The modernist and avant-garde movements of the Weimar period were shaped in turn by these complex debates around psychiatric or medical confinement, radical politics, and war. Modernists had long appropriated experiences of madness and illness, with madness in particular both celebrated as offering a primitivist access to an untrammelled aesthetic and psychic freedom, while simultaneously signifying the destabilizing and fragmenting experience of modern life.3 For many, however, the experience of war and postwar revolution highlighted the inadequacy of these often vague and apolitical perspectives. In some cases, artists and writers themselves experienced medicalized confinement directly, some as patients (the expressionist playwright Ernst Toller, for example, who was also later imprisoned for his leading role in the Bavarian Soviet Republic), others as orderlies (the expressionist painter and printmaker Conrad Felixmüller). In part because of these direct experiences, but more broadly due to the experience of the brutality of war, in movements like Dada madness and illness were increasingly politicized. As with Franzke-Rudolph, practices of confinement themselves came to be seen as part of larger oppressive capitalist and militarist social structures.4 We need to be careful about making too much of this shift, however. Even after the war a romantic notion of madness remained influential, perhaps most notably in Hans Prinzhorn's 1922 book Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Prinzhorn was a psychiatrist and art historian who worked in an asylum and collected the artworks produced by inmates. These he compared favorably with expressionism, although he insisted that inmates' art was spontaneous and unconscious, calling their work Bildnerei (image-making) in contrast to the consciously-produced Kunst (art) of artists. Artists flocked to him and his collection, but while he worked in an asylum, he had little to say about war, politics, or the institutional basis of psychiatric and medical confinement.5

What might a more politicized attention to the institutional politics of confinement, one closer to Franzke-Rudolph than Prinzhorn, bring to an understanding of the modernist fascination with madness and illness? To engage with this question, I will examine two of the most famous Weimar-era evocations of confinement, the asylum of Robert Wiene's 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps of Thomas Mann's 1924 novel The Magic Mountain. Both struggle with the complex intersections of madness, illness, and creativity, each foregrounding the material as well as the metaphorical or allegorical dimensions of confinement. Both film and novel respond to the rise of psychiatric medicine and psychoanalysis, and the...


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