Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War

Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War

Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War

Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War


Shell Shock Cinema explores how the classical German cinema of the Weimar Republic was haunted by the horrors of World War I and the the devastating effects of the nation's defeat. In this exciting new book, Anton Kaes argues that masterworks such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, The Nibelungen, and Metropolis, even though they do not depict battle scenes or soldiers in combat, engaged the war and registered its tragic aftermath. These films reveal a wounded nation in post-traumatic shock, reeling from a devastating defeat that it never officially acknowledged, let alone accepted.

Kaes uses the term "shell shock"--coined during World War I to describe soldiers suffering from nervous breakdowns--as a metaphor for the psychological wounds that found expression in Weimar cinema. Directors like Robert Wiene, F. W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang portrayed paranoia, panic, and fear of invasion in films peopled with serial killers, mad scientists, and troubled young men. Combining original close textual analysis with extensive archival research, Kaes shows how this post-traumatic cinema of shell shock transformed extreme psychological states into visual expression; how it pushed the limits of cinematic representation with its fragmented story lines, distorted perspectives, and stark lighting; and how it helped create a modernist film language that anticipated film noir and remains incredibly influential today.

A compelling contribution to the cultural history of trauma, Shell Shock Cinema exposes how German film gave expression to the loss and acute grief that lay behind Weimar's sleek fa ade.


Very bad form to mention the war.

—Osbert Sitwell, Out of the Flame, 1923

“May 9th, 1919. A Friday. Paul Simon returned from the World War.” This laconic notation opens Edgar Reitz's 1984 television series Heimat, an elevenpart chronicle of German history in the twentieth century. On that Friday in May 1919, Paul, a common soldier, is released from a prisoner-of-war camp and marches home. With the war over, a new life begins for him and for the nation. Or does it?

Striding through the village, Paul pauses a few times: how strange everything looks to the returning soldier! When he finally arrives at his parents' house, relatives and neighbors gather and bombard him with questions, but Paul is unable to respond. “Wasn't it noticeable at the end of the war,” remarked Walter Benjamin famously in 1936, “that men who returned from the battlefield had grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?”

Paul seems to be caught in another world; his catatonic stare suggests that he is a victim of shell shock. For a brief moment we catch a glimpse of his private hell: a dead comrade comes out of nowhere and stands in front of him, addressing him from beyond the battlefield. Have the dead risen to torment the living? Heimat suggests that the ghosts of the fallen . . .

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