Homo Cinematicus: Science, Motion Pictures, and the Making of Modern Germany

Homo Cinematicus: Science, Motion Pictures, and the Making of Modern Germany

Homo Cinematicus: Science, Motion Pictures, and the Making of Modern Germany

Homo Cinematicus: Science, Motion Pictures, and the Making of Modern Germany


In the early decades of the twentieth century, two intertwined changes began to shape the direction of German society. The baptism of the German film industry took place amid post-World War I conditions of political and social breakdown, and the cultural vacuum left by collapsing institutions was partially filled by moving images. At the same time, the emerging human sciences--psychiatry, neurology, sexology, eugenics, industrial psychology, and psychoanalysis--began to play an increasingly significant role in setting the terms for the way Germany analyzed itself and the problems it had inherited from its authoritarian past, the modernizing process, and war. Moreover, in advancing their professional and social goals, these sciences became heavily reliant on motion pictures.

Situated at the intersection of film studies, the history of science and medicine, and the history of modern Germany, Homo Cinematicus connects the rise of cinema as a social institution to an inquiry into the history of knowledge production in the human sciences. Taking its title from a term coined in 1919 by commentator Wilhelm Stapel to identify a new social type that had been created by the emergence of cinema, Killen's book explores how a new class of experts in these new disciplines converged on the figure of the "homo cinematicus" and made him central to many of that era's major narratives and social policy initiatives.

Killen traces film's use by the human sciences as a tool for producing, communicating, and popularizing new kinds of knowledge, as well as the ways that this alliance was challenged by popular films that interrogated the truth claims of both modern science and scientific cinema. In doing so, Homo Cinematicus endeavors to move beyond the divide between scientific and popular film, examining their historical coexistence and coevolution.


On the evening of April 4, 1919, Richard Kiliani of the German Foreign Office’s Press Department delivered a lengthy speech to officials of his ministry on the topic of “film propaganda in foreign nations.” During the war, Kiliani had overseen the public relations campaign conducted by Germany in neutral countries like Switzerland. Now, slightly less than six months after the cessation of hostilities, Kiliani turned his attention to the role of film propaganda in the tasks facing the defeated nation. in his remarks he placed particular emphasis on film’s tremendous power to mobilize “mass emotions.” Kiliani did not speak in vague terms but cited directly the findings of experimental psychology. He invoked a model of audience response that took into account the key faculties of attention, memory, and the will, and that acknowledged the basic human need for entertainment, yet at the same time remained cognizant of the moral hazards associated with the “trash” (Schund) that dominated much commercial filmmaking. in claiming a central role for film in the methods of modern statecraft, Kiliani advocated a strategy that avoided direct propaganda and relied instead on what he called an “associative technique”: “The effects of propaganda can and should only be sought through associative, that is to say not direct but indirect methods…. This does not mean, however, that we must sink to the depths of the sensational or the merely titillating. Trash, kitsch, and unmoral material, [which] unfortunately constitute for primitive people the basis of true art, must be strictly avoided.”

A likely source for Kiliani’s observations was Hugo Münsterberg’s recently published The Photoplay: a Psychological Study (1916). the Germanborn, Harvard-based Münsterberg was a world authority in the discipline of . . .

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