Homo Cinematicus

Situated at the intersection of film studies, the history of science and medicine, and the history of modern Germany, Homo Cinematicus: Science, Motion Pictures, and the Making of Modern Germany connects the emergence of cinema as a social institution to an inquiry into the history of knowledge production in the human sciences.

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

Andreas Killen

2017 | 280 pages | Cloth $69.95
Film Studies/Media Studies | History
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Introduction. Human Science and Cinema in Germany After the Great War
Chapter 1. Cinema and the Visual Culture of the Human Sciences
Chapter 2. Film Reform, Mental Hygiene, and the Campaign Against "Trash," 1912-34
Chapter 3. Hypnosis, Cinema, and Censorship in Germany, 1895-1933
Chapter 4. What Is an Enlightenment Film? Cinema and Sexual Hygiene in Interwar Germany
Chapter 5. Scientific Cinema Between Enlightenment and Superstition, 1918-41
Conclusion. Science, Cinema, and the Malice of Objects


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Human Science and Cinema in Germany After the Great War

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 German-born, Harvard-based Münsterberg was a world authority in the discipline of scientific psychology, a highly influential figure best known for his founding of the field of psychotechnics (or industrial psychology). Prior to the war, Münsterberg had adopted moving images as a scientific research medium, using quasi-cinematic techniques to conduct experiments on the reactions of motormen as part of an effort to reduce accidents in Boston's public transportation system. In The Photoplay, however, he turned his attention to popular film and to the relation between audience reception and processes of attention, memory, and emotion. We shall look more closely at this text later, but for now it is enough to note here that the results of this and related studies signaled that the young medium had acquired a new respectability and provided figures like Kiliani with the scientific underpinnings of a form of political communication that would assume immense significance in the postwar era.

Many Germans, however, were far from prepared to grant the moving image the respect that Münsterberg showed it. In the fall of 1919, the arch-conservative opinion maker Wilhelm Stapel published a short article titled "Homo cinematicus" in the pages of the nationalist journal Deutsches Volkstum. In it Stapel described a new anthropological type that, he claimed, had been conjured by the emergence of the cinema as a social institution. The term homo cinematicus functioned for Stapel as a shorthand for mass man; in terms echoing those of French crowd theorist Gustave Le Bon, Stapel described this type as a member of a suggestible throng, lacking willpower or discrimination, addicted to slogans, and prone to becoming hypnotically fixated on any image that commanded its field of vision. He cast film as one of the chief dangers facing Germany, both a political and a public health problem of major proportions, and implicated the new type of cinematically conditioned mass man in many of the crises that had overtaken the nation, not least the short-lived revolution that had accompanied the end of the war. Without indulging in the overt anti-Semitism that marked many of his other writings, Stapel used coded language to convey what was at stake in confronting the essentially alien forces associated with cinema: "Either film-capital or our culture will go smash." He dismissed the possibility that censorship could adequately combat the dangers that he associated with popular cinema.

Stapel's views reflect the dark mood of conservatives at this turbulent moment in German history. At the time his article was published, censorship had been officially abolished by the new Weimar government, and in the absence of the controls formerly exercised by the German empire's rather patchwork system of censorship, German theaters were flooded by films that included not just some of the landmark works of early Weimar filmmaking—notably, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nerves, and Different from the Others—but also a host of mostly now forgotten works trafficking in erotic themes, often under the banner of "sexual enlightenment." The baptism of a national film industry amid the conditions of political and social breakdown that marked the war's end was experienced as a cultural catastrophe by conservatives such as Stapel, and such figures would repeatedly invoke this period as one of deep horror. From such a perspective, even the reinstatement of censorship in 1920 could do little to right a world whose moral values had been turned upside down, especially given that such measures remained powerless in the face of the real danger: the appearance of a new crowd type emboldened to demand new rights and forms of emancipation as well as of entertainment.

Extreme though Stapel's views were, they nonetheless capture a basic truth about the role that film had assumed in the lives of Germans at this moment—a moment in which the vacuum left by collapsing institutions was partially filled by moving images, whose power to mediate citizens' perceptions of reality was frequently attested to by contemporaries. Describing a scene in revolutionary Berlin on the historic day of November 9, 1918, Harry Graf Kessler (who served as Kiliani's representative in overseeing German propaganda in Switzerland) evoked its resemblance to scenes from "a film of the Russian Revolution"; a few days later, with the initial disturbances having passed, Kessler reflected on the lack of disruption of tram and telephone services in the capital and wrote that "the colossal, world-shaking upheaval has scurried across Berlin's day to day life like an incident in a crime film." By the end of a war in which cinema had been mobilized to an unprecedented degree, motion picture imagery had also found its way into depictions of the psychic breakdown that was a hallmark of this uniquely traumatic conflict. We shall later consider examples of wartime psychiatric filmmaking, but here I will cite two examples of the way the new medium had begun to condition the inner reality of those affected by war. In a poem he wrote in 1917, future Dadaist George Grosz, who had been commissioned by Kiliani and Kessler to produce animated propaganda films in the war's latter stages, described his own wartime nervous collapse in lines that evoked the vivid image of a film projector run amok. And in 1919 the psychiatrist Viktor Tausk, who worked in a military hospital in Belgrade during the war, delivered a talk to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in which he discussed a new form of paranoid syndrome—the "influencing machine"—characterized by delusions in which the patient felt himself to be under the control of a doctor who showed images like those in a cinematograph.

In the war's aftermath, the medium's perceived power to influence its audience's perceptions and behavior became a major concern for officials and censors. This concern found expression in many censorship rulings. Fritz Lang, for instance, was forced to cut scenes from his film Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) that officials feared would awaken public memories of the street violence associated with the Spartacist uprising in January 1919. And, in an illustration of Weimar film's status as what Anton Kaes calls a "post-traumatic cinema," the psychiatrist Alfred Hoche submitted an expert opinion that recommended banning All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) on grounds that the film's images of war-traumatized soldiers could trigger widespread "psychological depression" among viewers.

Hoche's opinion represents one variation on this study's central theme: the many-faceted engagement of experts in psychiatry and other human sciences with the medium of film. At a time when representatives of these fields claimed a newly expansive role in adjudicating many social problems, it became one of their chief tasks to analyze and regulate the "mass emotions" unleashed by cinematic imagery. The concerns voiced by Kiliani—who stressed film's enormous power to galvanize people both to "crime, war, and revolution and to order, peace, and work"—capture the remarkable ambivalence surrounding film in this era. By contrast with the total condemnation voiced by Stapel, however, Kiliani's speech underscored the need for the type of analysis provided by the likes of Münsterberg, an analysis that suggested that, properly understood according to tools furnished by scientific experts, film could be reformed and made a constructive, even a socially transformative force; and that its public—the "primitive" type homo cinematicus—could similarly be known, reformed, and "improved."

It was in this spirit that one of Münsterberg's German acolytes, the psychotechnician Fritz Giese, integrated film into his wide-ranging studies of postwar society. Having come of age during the war, Giese was part of a medical front generation, which, in the war's aftermath, experimented with novel methods aimed at the reconstruction of German society along new lines. His writings breathe the spirit of high modernism's claim to design a new man through techniques of social engineering—a claim in which he assigned film a vital role. The moving image's power to mobilize productive forces became central to new forms of workplace rationalization widely adopted in postwar Germany: time-and-motion studies, aptitude testing, and accident-prevention propaganda. The "vast expansion of the field of the testable" that Walter Benjamin identified as a hallmark of this era found expression in the production of films like UFA's Berufseignung und Leistungsprüfung (Menschen-Ökonomie) (Job Aptitudes and Performance Testing [Human Economy]) (1921). But Giese saw work science as merely one facet of a more far-reaching process of cultural transformation. Taking a view diametrically opposed to that of Stapel, Giese found in the gestural language of popular cinema clear evidence of the new type of rationalized, eugenically fit individual that was being molded by the techniques of modern society.

Whereas Giese conceived of film as a research medium into mass behavior, other scientists, by contrast, saw it as a tool of individual psychodiagnostics. In 1932, the military psychologist Philipp Lersch's influential study Face and Soul reported on the results of his experiments with the moving image to study human facial expression and emotion. As he wrote, "It is in the first instance from the manifold realm of expressive phenomena that we derive, in the un-theoretical, naïve existence of our everyday lives, our knowledge or conjectures concerning the nature of others, in particular their emotional and mental states. . . . We exist in a condition of perpetual inter-personal exchange, completely unaware of the effects of the fluidum of finely nuanced expressive phenomena, of which we have virtually no objective understanding." Lersch used film to bring scientific analysis to this fluid realm. While his research built on the nineteenth-century photographic studies of emotion conducted by Duchenne de Boulogne and Charles Darwin, Lersch argued that the camera captured only static appearances, whereas film—as he wrote in invoking what by this time had become a standard claim—captured movement, both inner and outer: "Film can be applied here with the greatest profit; in the first instance, because it enables the capture and analysis of the fleeting appearance of expressive forms, and above all because it uncovers for observation forms that, thanks to their ephemeral quality, completely elude the naked eye and that . . . have characterological significance."

A typical test involved administering a stimulus (usually electrical current) to the subject while, unbeknownst to him, a film camera recorded the scene: "The test subject MG held two electrodes in his hands and awaits the current. In image 17 the current has not yet been switched on; in image 18 it is on and continually increasing" (see Figure 1). In keeping with Lersch's holistic view of the psychophysical organism, the results were then subjected to two kinds of analysis. The first involved quantification: the sudden, maximal opening of the eyes, which pointed to a condition of "apperceptive shock," was measured in order to determine the eyeball's position within the eye socket's "coordinate system." The empirical result here obtained was then followed by psychological analysis: "The expressive reaction of MG is not without characterological significance," as became clear, he wrote, in comparing this result with the result of a similar test involving test subject AD. Whereas the attitude of MG toward the electric current was that of a "passive type," who simply awaits what befalls him, the attitude of AD—as the expressive set of his mouth makes visible (in image 15)—was that of an active or willful type. These different expressive styles corresponded to the differences in overall disposition that emerged from the test subjects' respective psychological profiles (which Lersch included as an appendix).

Also noteworthy in Lersch's study is the next step taken: as the images show, he used scissors to cut up the face, separating the eyes and mouth from its other features. There was a precedent for this in the work of Duchenne de Boulogne, yet Lersch's adoption of this technique is striking, not least given his frequently voiced insistence on recuperating a holistic conception of selfhood. Whereas the masking used by Duchenne did not completely destroy the integrity of the face, the more radical surgery performed by Lersch results in a set of features completely severed from their facial or any other context. This suggests the existence of a degree of ambivalence regarding the evidentiary value of cinematic imagery: if moving images captured the full and authentic range of human expressive possibilities, they also contained, in some sense, a surplus of information, and had thus to undergo a further process of mediation in order to be made fully legible. In this form, Lersch's methods were taken up in the German military, where they became part of a search for reliable techniques for assessing leadership qualities, a central objective within the larger field of Menschenökonomie.

Lersch also claimed that his techniques could be used in the field of psychiatry to help diagnose conditions like hysteria, neurasthenia, and schizophrenia. Every individual, he wrote, was characterized by his or her own personal "expressive valence": a rich inner life corresponded to highly expressive tendencies, a poor or monotonous inner life to a flatness of expression that could approach autism. It was, for instance, typical of hysterics that they existed at the furthest extreme of the expressive spectrum, exhibiting what Lersch called a kind of "forced expressive tendency": "Here the least psychic movement is, in magnified form, projected in the sensory expressive sphere. The diagnostic hallmark of such cases lies in what is to us an evidently disproportionate expressive relation between the individual and the given situation." Here the face becomes a kind of screen onto which emotional states of the inner world are projected; inner emotion, as Giuliana Bruno observes in another context, is registered as outer motion. Yet though Lersch assumed a natural, nonarbitrary identity between inner and outer, his references to the hysteric's disproportionate facial reactions and "forced expressive tendencies" suggest that, under certain circumstances, expression may become unmoored not just from external coordinates but from known internal determinants as well.

This makes it all the more striking that at key points in his text Lersch turns to images of film actors to provide supplemental proofs for his claims. The most significant is that of Emil Jannings, playing the role of Mephisto in F. W. Murnau's Faust (1925), whose image served both as frontispiece and as illustration of what Lersch called a type of "veiled gaze." But as film-studies scholars have shown, Faust is also one of the many "grand enunciators" who feature in Weimar cinema and who assert their own proprietary claim over film. Highlighting its qualities as a medium of magic and illusion, Faust puts in question its status as medium of scientific truth. Lersch's study demonstrates, on the one hand, how film became a crucial resource in the human sciences, providing a form of epistemic guarantee for scientists intent on probing the secrets of human nature; and, on the other, the extent to which scientific cinema of this period remained entangled in a productive yet also uneasy relation with its Doppelgänger the popular cinema. Ironically, with its radical alteration of his subjects' faces, Lersch's quest for a reliable science of expression further contributed to the destabilization of the human visage brought about by a war that had produced an extensive iconography of facial disfigurement and deformation.


In his speech in April 1919, Richard Kiliani stressed the need to adapt wartime techniques of mass mobilization to the problems of postwar society. One of the first fruits of his initiatives was the film The Effects of the Hunger Blockade on National Health (1921), a film conceived as part of a campaign to arouse both domestic and international outrage against the blockade imposed by the Entente on Germany at war's end. Combining statistical information on mortality, disease, malnourishment, and birth rates with graphic images of human suffering, this film depicted in the most vivid possible terms the state of "biological catastrophe" that had been produced by the blockade. It served as a harbinger of a postwar cinematic campaign meant to enlighten the public on a host of public health-related issues. A crucial role in the realization of the film's treatment was played by Curt Thomalla, a figure who, as Ulf Schmidt has shown, became closely identified with the development of the so-called Aufklärungsfilm. Like Fritz Giese, Thomalla's identity as a member of Germany's medical front generation shaped both his tendency to invoke continually the lessons of the war and his willingness to experiment with novel and increasingly radical solutions to the health crises facing Germany in its aftermath. Trained as a neurologist, Thomalla was stationed at a military hospital where he treated cases of shellshock and traumatic head injury. There he was first exposed to the virtues of film as a means of capturing certain types of disease pictures. Thomalla wrote that he had become interested in an unusual case of a rare nervous disorder that proved difficult to record by conventional means: "Despite extensive photography the peculiarities of this case of pathological movement could not be captured. . . . I eventually recognized that only film footage could render this kind of complicated motion perfectly and unambiguously clear."

In 1919, he was appointed head of the Medical Film Archive of the newly formed film conglomerate UFA. Thomalla took up this position at a period when the rapid expansion of the field of neuropsychiatry was accompanied by extensive reliance on the moving image for purposes of research, teaching, and public health education. Over the course of the 1920s, he made or oversaw the production of a large corpus of films on topics ranging from venereal disease and sexual hygiene to industrial accidents and eugenic sterilization. In a 1919 pamphlet promoting the creation of the Medical Film Archive, Thomalla singled out the fields of neurology and psychiatry to illustrate film's virtues as a medium of research, instruction, and public enlightenment. He saw motion pictures as a means of improving on ordinary perception and producing new knowledge, and he claimed that film helped optimize the observational powers of the clinician by creating new possibilities of "rapid-diagnosis" and of identifying disease syndromes at "first glance." Especially in the case of hysteria, which one encountered "true forms" of only rarely, "film has the virtue of making it instantly recognizable." As Lersch's text similarly suggests, no medical disorder of this era was more significant or fraught than that of hysteria (or its close cognate, war neurosis), which represented a kind of limit case for psychological science. By helping differentiate between true and false forms, the moving image became a key tool in stabilizing the disease picture associated with it.

The faith espoused here by Thomalla had significant ramifications. Over the course of the 1920s, the knowledge claims he made with regard to such disease pictures would be used to support larger claims for his field's ability to identify and administer cures for a wide array of social afflictions. In a 1922 article, Thomalla stated his intention of enlisting film in a process of mass hygienic enlightenment that would encompass all of society in its grip, ultimately penetrating even to its "remotest corners" ("in die breitesten Volkskreise, in die letzte Hütte"). Doing so entailed not least an understanding of and ability to penetrate the mass psyche, since—here he echoed Kiliani's views—Thomalla stressed that an effective public health campaign must disavow overtly propagandistic methods and employ an "indirect" approach addressed to the subconscious strata of the public mind.

This faith was, however, a far from untroubled one. Throughout his career, Thomalla's work remained marked by an abiding concern with the shadow side of mass enlightenment. His engagement with the vexing issues of audience response specific to the cinema reflected the larger role being claimed by scientists in the regulation of the new medium. Thomalla's recognition of these issues became a leitmotif of his career, already signaled in a programmatic article of 1919 and repeatedly echoed in later writings, most forcefully in 1928 when he referred to the eighteen-month period following the war's end and prior to the reinstatement of film censorship in May 1920 as the "dreadful time without censorship" ("die zensurlose, schreckliche Zeit"). As he saw clearly, the German scientific community's investment in the possibilities of the moving image compelled it to confront head on the questions surrounding its effects on the public, a public whose psychic life became an endlessly theorized object of expert discourse at this time. Among those who weighed in on this subject—and on whose ideas Thomalla drew freely—was Sigmund Freud, who offered one of the most vivid contemporary analyses of the mental characteristics of the crowd, writing in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921 that the mass psyche was marked by a kind of disabling of the "mental superstructure"—an overthrowing of the "internal censor," whose presence in the psyche he likened elsewhere to a "garrison in a conquered city."

In its dual capacity for mass instruction and mass suggestion, film thus exemplified the "dialectic of enlightenment" later analyzed by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Pivoting between these two poles, Thomalla employed numerous strategies to protect his films against undue criticism, on the one hand, and misreading, on the other. We will examine some of these in later chapters, but for now we will consider the example of the film Ein Blick in die Tiefe der Seele: Der Film vom Unbewussten (A Glimpse into the Depths of the Soul: A Film of the Unconscious [1923]), on which Thomalla collaborated with the psychiatrist Arthur Kronfeld. The film is now lost, but archival documents allow us to reconstruct its basic outlines. It dealt with the important topic of hypnosis, a technique that Thomalla, like many other physicians, had used to treat soldiers during the war. In the war's aftermath, hypnosis was also widely and ambivalently thematized in popular films like Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. Following the release of Lang's film in 1922, in an article that provides further evidence of an ongoing Weimar dialogue between scientific and popular filmmaking, Thomalla voiced a forceful critique of its sensationalistic portrayal of the "psychoanalyst" and hypnotist Mabuse as master criminal.

By way of response to Lang's film, Ein Blick in die Tiefe der Seele treated the subject of hypnosis in a popular yet scrupulously sober fashion. It began with diagrammatic models of the nervous system and brain, followed by images of the conscious and subconscious mind. Next followed an animated sequence depicting the nervous system of a man who has narrowly escaped being run over by a car and is in a state of shock. This scene links the film to the discussion about war neurosis: during the Weimar era, the shocks associated with vehicular and industrial accidents were seen as peacetime equivalents of war-related trauma (in the late 1920s, Thomalla became deeply involved in a campaign to spread awareness of the dangers of industrial accidents). Subsequent scenes depict cases of somnambulism and autosuggestion, the phenomenon of fakirism, and incidents depicting "mass psychology and the madness of crowds"; diagrams of the nervous system in a state of trance; and sphygmographic measurements of the effect of hypnosis on pulse rate. The film's last two parts portray the successful treatment of nervous invalids by hypnotic means; and finally, the problem of so-called criminal suggestion—crimes committed under hypnotic influence—by means of experiments conducted with patients from a Berlin clinic (see Figures 2 and 3). (One of these, Thomalla later wrote, was so upset by the experience that he lashed out at and destroyed a camera.) In a final rebuttal to Dr. Mabuse, the film ended by reassuring its audience that hypnosis could not be used to force someone to do something against his or her will.

If Ein Blick in die Tiefe der Seele asserts the psychiatric profession's claims to produce knowledge of and treat illness—and by implication the moving image's capacity to represent faithfully such claims—it also shows that neither set of claims can be taken for granted. This is especially borne out in its treatment of the figure of the medical charlatan and the related dangers of "mass suggestion." In its effort to reclaim the doctor's methods and authority from the realm of popular culture, this film also endeavors to restore professional controls over the process of image-making that is increasingly central to that authority. It does so by addressing an issue obsessively treated in reformers' and censors' writings on film, namely, its alleged capacity to cast a powerful spell over its audience. Thomalla stressed that, in its treatment of unusual subject matter, his own film had been subjected to what he called conditions of "rigorous scientific control." Such control secured not just the objective representation of complex thematic material relating to hypnosis and the unconscious but also the implicit links between this material and the enunciative act itself. In thus reflecting on its own mediality, Ein Blick in die Tiefe der Seele affirmed the conditions of possibility for the project of filmic enlightenment. With this film behind him, Thomalla's subsequent cinematic ventures would be accompanied by broad claims about the significance of the role of the unconscious in medicine and politics.

Concerns about film's reliability as a medium of mass education took on new urgency as filmmakers moved into increasingly controversial territory. As the public health campaign undertaken by figures like Thomalla assumed ever more ambitious dimensions, the issues surrounding audience response—what Philipp Sarasin calls the "unstable discursive relations of popular hygiene"—posed renewed challenges. Following the release of his 1923 film, Thomalla's subsequent productions took him in increasingly bold directions, culminating in the film The Curse of Heredity (1928), which presented the case for compulsory sterilization of the "incurably" mentally ill. It may come as little surprise to learn that he eventually became a Nazi, assuming a position as expert on health and population policy in the Third Reich's Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. There are distinct continuities between Thomalla's early writings and his later writings, most strikingly evident in the connections he drew between the suggestible psyche of the soldier-patient and the suggestible psyche of the German populace. Yet there was nothing inevitable about his trajectory; the form of bio-politics that he espoused throughout his career was compatible with democracy, even if by the end of the 1920s he was beginning to voice frustrations that anticipate his later turn to National Socialism. During the interwar period, the alliance that Thomalla and others like him forged between cinema and human science became central to the search for new strategies of governance grounded in what Kathleen Canning has called the "regulation of body, sexuality, and reproduction." If, following the argument of Michel Foucault, we understand governmentality as a cluster of techniques for influencing the behavior of individuals and societies, then it becomes evident that the regulation of affect formed a central objective of such techniques. Crucial to this objective was the development of a form of censorship that could serve as a reliable tool of post-authoritarian methods of governance. Their involvement in this field illustrates the increasing penetration of the human sciences into essential matters of Germany's postwar political, social, and cultural life.


Thomalla's avowed goal of using filmic enlightenment to reach into the most remote corners of society contains distinct echoes of the historical process that historian Lutz Raphael has dubbed the "scientization of social phenomena." This development originated in the turbulent decades of the late nineteenth century, when German unification set in motion a highly accelerated and conflict-ridden process of industrial transformation that affected many levels of society. In response to the late nineteenth-century discovery of the field of the "social," experts in the "young sciences" (to paraphrase Freud) of psychiatry, criminology, industrial psychology, sexology, eugenics, and psychoanalysis claimed increasing responsibility for the task of identifying, interpreting, and solving social problems. Debate continues about the extent and limits of this process, but Raphael's periodization remains broadly useful: He identifies 1880-1910 as a period of "social reform," followed by a period of "social engineering" that extended from 1920 through 1945. During this period, the human and social sciences asserted jurisdiction over many areas of social policy, offering, in place of what Max Weber defined as value-laden criteria, ostensibly nonpartisan criteria of analysis.

Scientific cinema became an important vehicle of the objectivity effects mobilized as part of this process, whether in the context of debates about war neurosis, in the arena of postwar "human economy," or in related fields. This reflects the medium's contribution to a consequential ideal of scientific observation that Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have termed "mechanical objectivity": the standardization of the object under observation through mechanical means, ostensibly free of all traces of intervention on the part of the observer. Thomalla's claims concerning film's role in the resolution of questions about the disease picture surrounding war neurosis, or those of Lersch concerning its advantages in analyzing facial expression, are but two examples of this ideal. They bear out the importance of cinematic processes of scientific knowledge formation to the search for a new and more reliable foundation for social policy in the postwar era. Aspirations for creating a new social order out of the ruins of the one that had collapsed at the end of the war became inextricably bound up with the creation of a new epistemic order—a powerful, if nevertheless contested, form of perceiving, organizing, and shaping social "reality."

If scientific filmmaking became one pillar of this new order, another was erected by the claim scientists staked to jurisdiction over the regulation of popular film. The recognition of this claim was by no means a given: at the dawn of the cinematic age, clergy and pedagogues dominated public debate about popular film and its perceived moral hazards. But by the early 1920s, scientific experts had become increasingly influential arbiters of the boundaries of what was permissible in this realm. The assumption of this role was based on their claims to produce knowledge of crowd psychology and to assess reliably the moral and behavioral effects of film (the field of what Kiliani called "mass emotions"). Such claims functioned at several levels: they reflected the professed diagnostic and predictive value of these new sciences as well as their ability to define specific disease pictures along with wider patterns of behavior, affliction, and amelioration. As Annette Kuhn has written in the British context, the early twentieth-century alliance between science and cinema represented a bid to advance the epistemic claims of science against those of religion. While scholars have in recent years greatly qualified long-standing narratives concerning the secularization and disenchantment of German society, it remains largely true that in the interwar period science took on a newly assertive position in many realms of social policy. Much work needs to be done, however, to properly historicize conflicts over the role of expertise in social policy.

An important feature of the process by which, according to theorists like Raphael, Jacques Donzelot, and Nikolas Rose, the human sciences became embedded in modern societies concerns their role in elaborating new behavioral ideals and blueprints. One such ideal that receives particular emphasis in this study arose out of the field of popular hygiene. Hygienic doctrine emerged as a key response to the discovery of "the social": it was under the auspices of this doctrine that political and medical authorities organized their campaigns of social reform and national regeneration. Laying down new norms of health, defined in bio-political terms of productive and reproductive well-being, they embraced hygiene as the organizing principle of modern life. As Philipp Sarasin has shown, hygiene became a "magic formula" by means of which the risks of contemporary existence could be identified and managed. He identifies the spread of hygienic codes of behavior as a constitutive feature of the history of bourgeois society and processes of self-formation since the Enlightenment. In the early twentieth century, the role of "hygienic enlightenment" in producing powerfully normative images of health acquired a greatly expanded scope with the advent of the modern mass media and of a new genre of enlightenment films on matters of sexual and social hygiene. Identifying and proposing solutions for an array of risks to individual and social well-being, such films (and the normative viewing practices that assured their proper reception) played a crucial role in delineating the contours of a specifically German hygienic imaginary. Hygiene opened up broad horizons, allowing new measures—including some, as we shall see, that were highly transgressive—to become thinkable.

In connection with the history of the Aufklärungsfilm, the theme of enlightenment is a central one of this study. Several chapters chart the fortunes of this highly mutable and contested term, which was claimed by actors ranging from Jewish sexologists to Nazi racial scientists. Readers conditioned by the Frankfurt School theorists will doubtless react skeptically to the use of this term in this context. Yet it is necessary to give due weight to the original sense of meaning that surrounded it in the postwar era to avoid the back shadowing created by the Nazis' appropriation of the term. A recent wave of scholarship has, by bringing fresh analytic tools to the study of the Aufklärungsfilm, recognized its significance within the history of this period. This significance is due not least to the way that the genre often complicates the standard film-studies divide between feature and nonfeature filmmaking. In examining this genre, I make the need to restore the dialogue between these two strands of film history a basic premise of this book. Meanwhile, rediscovery of this "hidden Weimar" has coincided with the emergence of another body of work that, in contrast with scholarship stressing the near inevitability of Weimar's demise, asserts its more optimistic, open-ended potentials—what Rüdiger Graf and Moritz Foellmer identify as the productive aspects of the "Weimar consciousness of crisis." The enlightenment film, I suggest, represents a significant expression of this. The transformation of enlightenment that occurred under the Nazis was far from inevitable and, despite the continuities that exist between the Weimar and Nazi eras, it is crucial, as Edward Ross Dickinson has argued, to place proper interpretive weight on the fundamental break that occurred in 1933, when the Nazis put an end to the polyvocal discourse of the Weimar era and imposed monopolistic controls on the process of "mass enlightenment."


This study connects the emergence of cinema as a social institution with an inquiry into the history of knowledge and theory production in the emerging human sciences. During the first decades of the twentieth century, these sciences assumed a key role in negotiating the transition not only from an authoritarian to a democratic system but also from a democracy to a dictatorship, by helping to set the terms for how German society analyzed itself and found solutions for the problems it had inherited as a legacy of the authoritarian past, the modernizing process, and war. Particularly in the war's aftermath, Doris Kaufmann has argued, psychiatric categories and modes of reasoning increasingly permeated German society. Yet debate continues about the extent to which psychiatry and related fields in the psy sciences exercised real power during this period. One issue at stake in this study is precisely the uncertain status of these young sciences at a moment when they claimed new authority yet had also become enmeshed in challenges to authority of all kinds. As I show in the chapters that follow, this social drama was frequently played out in film. My argument takes seriously the power of cinematic images and the professions that make them to produce, as Christian Bonah and Anja Laukötter put it, "cultural representations of reality." But it also explores how those representations acquired complex, unintended meanings once released into the public realm. Powerful though it was, this new form of image- and knowledge-making, and the claims to expertise associated with it, were far from uncontested. Scientist filmmakers were continually forced to reassert their professional authority against competing discourses and images that fed on popular misgivings and unease concerning, for instance, widespread accounts of abusive treatment of soldiers by doctors during the war. Cinematic portrayals of "mad scientists" like Mabuse as well as the persistent popularity of alternative, or lay, healers both serve as indices of the ongoing public relations problem facing psychiatry and allied professions in the war's aftermath. This problem only intensified in the 1930s as the forms of human engineering associated with these sciences became ever more deeply entangled in transgressive policies.

Throughout his career, Thomalla framed the process of hygienic enlightenment as a battle against the forces of ignorance and superstition. Like campaigns meant to combat fear of inoculation, he wrote, "the swindle of the pseudo-occultist, the layman's superstitious fear of the insane asylum . . . could not be fought more effectively, and a healthy physical culture, a rational form of population politics, could not be better propagated than through the medium of film." In the interwar period, "superstition" came to stand for the myriad possibilities of misreading, false, or deviant knowledge that haunted the enlightenment project. In combating such possibilities, authorities used film not only to educate the public but also as a control apparatus for rendering judgment on the claims of occultists, in much the same way that it had helped adjudicate claims for war-related psychological disability. For the knowledge problem surrounding the war neurotic—were his symptoms real or fake?—was in many ways identical to that posed by self-professed clairvoyants, a high number of whom, police reports documented, were former war neurotics. Yet Thomalla's faith in the power of Aufklärung to resolve such problems was frequently belied by the outcome of trials involving such figures, whose persistent popularity in this era complicates any narrative of advancing scientization. Recent work has shed new light on the extent to which belief in alternative medicine and magic persisted alongside the expansion of Weimar's highly rationalized system of medical welfare.

Under the Nazis, initial efforts to reconcile these divergent strains in German medicine gave way to an escalating campaign against the problem of medical charlatanry, culminating in 1940 with the arrest of astrologers and the release of enlightenment films targeting the phenomenon of superstition. This development should not be seen simply as the outcome of a straightforward process of medical modernization, even if that was one of its aspects. Rather, the coincidence of this moment with growing public unease about the regime's Aktion T4, or "euthanasia," program underscores the degree to which scientists still contended with marked resistance to their authority. As their mounting involvement in the regime's racial-hygiene policies brought them into conflict with church leaders, the battle against "superstition" was gradually extended to organized religion. Throughout this era, scientists who used film both to conduct research on psychiatric disorders and to enlighten the public about the regime's policies remained haunted by popular images of "mad science" and by residual "superstition" concerning the figure of the doctor hypnotist. Such images, lamented the eminent psychiatrist Carl Schneider, were evidence of an "anti-psychiatric complex" against which the profession was compelled to redouble its efforts at enlightenment.

A key aspect of this cinematically produced hygienic imaginary thus concerns the history of the external and internal controls required to ensure its successful operation. This history is deeply inscribed in the tangled legacies of the Enlightenment. Robert Darnton long ago showed how a figure like Franz Anton Mesmer could destabilize the boundaries of Enlightenment thought by popularizing a doctrine of "mesmeric" influence that had many points of contact with contemporaneous discoveries about the invisible forces that made up the universe. A similar development occurred in postwar Germany: even as mass enlightenment took shape as a central aspiration of postwar social reform, officials and scientists struggled with the proliferation of Mesmer-like figures, both real and cinematic, that challenged this aspiration. The regulation of cinema and of the hold it seemed to exercise over its audience became a key front in this struggle.

Yet there are reasons to be skeptical of the view that homo cinematicus—this figure that haunted the imagination of doctors and censors—was an essentially passive, agentless entity akin to the somnambulist Cesare, instrument of Dr. Caligari's crime spree, or the victims of Lang's Dr. Mabuse. Among other things, this view is difficult to square with the demands for rights and emancipation and the corresponding struggles over social issues that marked this period. Such conflicts extended into struggles over the means of representation and the politics of image-making. As we have seen, in their efforts to assert a proprietary claim over this realm, doctors made it central to the assertion of new forms of what Michel Foucault calls "psychiatric power." Yet one distinctive feature of Weimar popular cinema is how many films interrogate this new form of power and the complex effects associated with the processes of scientific image-making central to its assertion. Scientization, as the authors of a recent study put it, was not a "one-way street."

In being constituted as a new research object of human science, the figure of homo cinematicus did not always remain stationary, as the story of the patient who lashed out at and destroyed a camera during the making of Thomalla's film illustrates. Even as they adjusted their lives in accordance with new behavioral scripts regarding work, sexual conduct, or viewing habits, ordinary Germans did not always submit gladly to these scripts; sometimes they tried to write their own. For Walter Benjamin, it was precisely in the endless "expansion of the field of the testable" that new possibilities of agency and emancipation could be discerned. He welcomed the contribution of an engaged cinema to the creation of a more politically aware public in place of the audience that commercial cinema had rendered "a mass of hypnotized test subjects."

Many films of this period may be read in terms of how they position themselves in relation to the general problematic defined by the increasing importance of the mass media in modern society. Often they do so, as Stefan Andriopoulos has shown, by weaving variations on the Mabusean formula of crime under hypnotic compulsion. The now forgotten films Unter fremdem Willen (1912) and Das Verlorene Ich (1925), which exist for us only in the form of censorship documents, told similar tales of "criminal suggestion." In both cases, the films' producers responded to the censor's concern that such scenarios posed risks for suggestible audience members by arguing that their film performed a kind of "counter-hypnosis" that would release filmgoers from the medium's spell. As we shall see, many films of this period sought to perform such a feat of counterhypnosis, to educate the public about its relation to the powerful effects of cinematic imagery—in a word, to enlighten them. Indeed, Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, the film that provoked Thomalla into making his film about hypnosis, constitutes the single most self-reflexive film of the entire Weimar era, and it is no accident, as we shall later see, that its narrative reflects directly on the forms of authority that Thomalla mobilized in his own film.

Stripping Stapel's coinage of its pejorative meaning, this study examines how a new professional caste—made up of psychiatrists and experimental psychologists, industrial experts and crowd theorists, sexologists and psychoanalysts, mental and racial hygienists—converged on the figure of homo cinematicus, and in so doing placed this figure at the center of major narratives and policy initiatives of the interwar era. While adopting a critical attitude toward Stapel's views, it also takes its distance from those of left-wing cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer, whose brilliant yet highly problematic From Caligari to Hitler has long been a monument of scholarship on this topic. In terms that are ironically evocative of Stapel's, Kracauer's "psychological history of German film" emphasized that the hypnotists and somnambulists that populated the Weimar screen corresponded to something pathological in the German soul that presaged the Nazis' triumph. Like Stapel's, this reading must be historicized: as an outgrowth of studies Kracauer had carried out as part of the Allies' World War II psychological warfare program, it exemplifies the mobilization of the human sciences in and through the medium of film during the modern era.

Against such readings, this study stresses the open-endedness and multiple trajectories that marked the alliance between cinema and human science in the postwar era, which were only foreclosed with the Nazis' ascent to power. Weimar film, I argue, was neither a medium of cynical enlightenment nor one of hypnosis; nor was its public a merely suggestible throng. In tracing the emergence of a new nexus between science, cinema, and social policy in Germany between 1895 and 1945, this study highlights the ambiguous faith in "the molding of peoples" identified by Peter Fritzsche as a hallmark of this era. Films of this period allow us to witness the emergence of this faith as well as its vicissitudes, dark possibilities, unintended effects, and limits.


Chapter 1, "Cinema and the Visual Culture of the Human Sciences," presents an overview of the book's themes. It traces film's emergence from the experimental life sciences and its appropriation by the human sciences as a tool both for producing knowledge and for communicating and popularizing this knowledge. It then explores how this highly productive alliance was turned on its head, in the form of popular films that interrogated the truth claims both of modern science and of scientific cinema. It concludes by looking briefly at how this development compelled scientists to become authorities on questions of audience reception and censorship.

Chapter 2, "Film Reform, Mental Hygiene, and the Campaign Against 'Trash,' 1912-34," looks more closely at scientists' response to popular cinema through campaigns of reform, regulation, and censorship. It traces the emergence and vicissitudes of a medical paradigm of film censorship in connection with efforts to come to grips with the problem of "trash"—films trafficking in themes of sex, crime, and forbidden knowledge—a problem that doctors defined in hygienic terms.

Chapter 3, "Hypnosis, Cinema, and Censorship in Germany, 1895-1933," examines the theme of hypnosis in popular film and within the medical discourse about the medium. Drawing on the archives of the Ministry of the Interior, it rereads several canonical films of the Weimar period (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Dr. Mabuse the Gambler) through the lens of a wider preoccupation with and effort to regulate the dangerously "suggestive" properties of film.

Chapter 4, "What Is an Enlightenment Film? Cinema and Sexual Hygiene in Interwar Germany," reconstructs the complex history of the so-called enlightenment film from Weimar-era sexual hygiene to the Nazis' racial hygiene campaigns. The Aufklärungsfilm represented the purest expression of the transformative powers that were vested in the alliance between cinema and human science. Throughout this unstable period, as Germans oscillated between the poles of crisis and emancipation, films on sexual, mental, and racial hygiene offered new blueprints and prescriptions for behavior and identity. But the history of this genre was also marked by intense debates about the social meaning, moral effects, instrumental uses, and control of moving images, debates that extended well into the Nazi period.

Chapter 5, "Scientific Cinema Between Enlightenment and Superstition, 1918-41" extends the argument of Chapter 4 by looking at interwar cinematic campaigns against esoteric "new sciences" such as clairvoyance and occultism, which, like psychoanalysis and sexology earlier, were often condemned as forms of "Jewish science." Chapter 5 relates this campaign to controversies surrounding medical authority and practice that stemmed both from World War I and from the institutionalization of racial hygiene under the Nazis. It analyzes the treatment of the medical "charlatan," or the occultist, in connection with the efforts of scientists and physicians to manage their public image at a time when that image had become deeply contested.