When I first got into film criticism and was finally in a college town with a decent used bookshop, Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film was in that first huge batch of books I bought to place on my shelf. I had just watched The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (watch it online here) for the first time, and had seen the book referenced often. Alas, it also sat on my shelf unread, along with some other thick critical tomes.
But needless to say, I guess I’m okay with that now, for Kyle Kallgren’s 16 minute distillation of Kracauer’s influential 1947 book does an amazing job of explaining the critic’s main thesis--that the kinds of heroes and villains, along with the kind of stories that were successful in Weimar-era Germany, were laying the psychological groundwork for the rise of fascism and Hitler. Because films are a mass medium that take a mass of people to make and consume, they reveal the subconscious mind of its society. Kracauer wasn't saying that the creators were anti-Semitic or Nazi sympathizers. In fact, Weimar's best known directors fled the Nazis and made films in America. But there was something in the air, so to speak, that in retrospect made Hitler seem like an inevitable real-world outcome of these various forces.
Kracauer’s thesis was influenced by the writers and philosophers of the Frankfurt School, who posited that a “culture industry” of mass-produced art helped reinforce a stamping out of identity. Anti-Marxists may call this passé, but we still talk about these ideas whenever there’s a think piece about violence in the movies reflecting a violent culture—but usually the wrong way around, suggesting that violent movies create violent people. Or look at how each version of Batman is seen as reflecting concerns of the time in which it is made.
As Kallgren says in his brief video description, “I felt a strong need to make this one.” After he sums up Kracauer’s work he tracks the paths of those directors and stars of Weimar Germany—I forgot that the sleepwalking Cesare of Caligari was played by the same actor who plays the Nazi major in Casablanca—he turns to America, circa 2016, in particular post-election. This is not explicitly to compare a certain person to Hitler, going full Godwin. But rather, Kallgren looks to our own blockbusters, our stories, our own culture industry to see what greater narrative is going on here. The contradictions come thick and fast at the end, and will provide much to debate.
As a side note, Kallgren’s work shows the power of video essays to bring alive and resuscitate major works of cultural criticism. We hope he and others start to adapt other works in the future.
Many of the films referenced in this video essay-- like Caligari, Nosferatu and Metropolis--can be found in our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.