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, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.
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 tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.
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.