German films showed war by other means

Weimar Germany was not a place where an animated Bambi could have frolicked.

"Weimar films replayed the horrors and fears of the war: mass death, psychosis, apocalyse," Anton Kaes, director of the film studies program at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a lecture last week.

Kaes' lecture about war and Weimar cinema was the first in a six-talk series developed by the German Department and the new film studies program. "Weimar cinema as a precursor or prefiguration of Hitler doesn't satisfy," Kaes said. "The book that I should be writing - if I wasn't speaking to you tonight - is that the war, by its absence, shows itself."

In his presentation, Kaes argued that post-World War I German films that were patently about war, such as "All Quiet on the Western Front," did not begin appearing until close to 1930. By Kaes' estimation, these later features weren't as war-obsessed as their non-blatant precursors.

"[The earlier pictures] are war films, just not in the typical thinking," Kaes said. "'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Platoon' are predictable memories given to you by the movies. Losing the war denied [Weimar] a chance to sentimentalize it."

Kaes screened clips from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920), directed by war veteran F. W. Murnau, to illustrate how Weimar cinema transmuted the war experience with symbols of the psychological effects of war. Audiences would have recognized Murnau's narrative technique as the "talking cure" used to treat shell-shocked soldiers while the script dwelt upon defeat, loss and suffering. "It was in the cinema where the dark trauma of war could be revisited again and again," Kaes said.

Simon Richter is in his first year at Penn as chair of the German Department, and as a member of the Film Studies Committee is avidly pushing interdisciplinary involvement with the new film studies minor. "It was all kind of serendipitous," said Richter of the series' existence. "The college deans are very interested in getting the film studies program off the ground...and after talking to a number of people we were able to get the money together for the series."

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Originally published on February 11, 1999