From Caligari to Hitler: A Look at How Cinema Laid the Foundation for Tyranny in Weimar Germany

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 Cali­gariNos­fer­atu and Metrop­o­liscan be found in our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Metrop­o­lis: Watch Fritz Lang’s 1927 Mas­ter­piece

Watch Nos­fer­atu, the Sem­i­nal Vam­pire Film, Free Online (1922)

Watch The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari, the Influ­en­tial Ger­man Expres­sion­ist Film (1920)

How Ger­man Expres­sion­ism Influ­enced Tim Bur­ton: A Video Essay

Where Hor­ror Film Began: The Cab­i­net of Dr. Cali­gari

Fritz Lang Tells the Riv­et­ing Sto­ry of the Day He Met Joseph Goebbels and Then High-Tailed It Out of Ger­many

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 and/or watch his films here.

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  • Meng Chin Leong says:

    I’m some­what sur­prised that there should be any con­tro­ver­sy about the idea that movies uncon­scious­ly hold up a mir­ror to soci­ety. We look to the folk tales and myths of a peo­ple to under­stand how they under­stand their own soci­ety. Movies are the mod­ern world’s ver­sion of folk tales and myths. When you look at many many pop­u­lar films and see the deep sto­ry under­ly­ing them all, is that not sim­i­lar to the work that anthro­pol­o­gists do in elic­it­ing a peo­ple’s sto­ries? My under­stand­ing is that Kra­cauer is talk­ing about analysing a large num­ber of pop­u­lar films by many dif­fer­ent direc­tors and draw­ing out their com­mon threads; it is not about one film or one direc­tor.

    No film mak­er lives apart from his own cul­ture and in telling a sto­ry he draws on the cul­tur­al and moral wells of his soci­ety to frame that sto­ry. A sto­ry that clash­es too great­ly with the way his soci­ety frames its world view will fail to be pop­u­lar. When you look at the many many pop­u­lar films by dif­fer­ent direc­tors and stu­dios over a peri­od of time, and see that they all have cer­tain ideas of the way the world is seen and works, it is not too far a stretch to argue that these films speak to the audi­ence because they res­onate with their own deep sto­ry of how the world works.

    I don’t get the impres­sion that Kall­gren is say­ing that Amer­i­ca of 2016 is like Weimar Ger­many before the rise of Hitler. I do get the impres­sion that he is draw­ing on Kra­cauer’s work to argue that look­ing at the movies of the past two decades, we see the com­mon theme of a Indi­vid­ual who breaks the law to do the right thing because he knows in his heart that it is the right thing and there­by saves the day. It’s sure­ly not a great an insight to see that the myth of the lone hero that saves the day against the oppo­si­tion of the benight­ed Estab­lish­ment / Gov­ern­ment is very much an ide­al that under­lies the Amer­i­can mythos. I would add to that the ide­al­i­sa­tion of the small town as the true hold­er of Red White and Blue virtues.

    Watch­ing Bol­ly­wood movies, one also see reflec­tions (hard­ly an insight one would think) of Indi­an cul­ture and how Indi­ans explain the world to them­selves. It’s no acci­dent that the hero is invari­ably fair skinned north­ern Indi­an and the buf­foon or vil­lain is invari­ably dark skinned south­ern Indi­an. It reflects the exist­ing caste strat­i­fi­ca­tion in Indi­an soci­ety. In the same way, a con­stant theme in Japan­ese ani­me is a world destroy­ing weapon that must nev­er be built, that reflects its own trau­ma with Hiroshi­ma and Nagasa­ki.

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