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

Homo Cinematicus: Science, Motion Pictures, and the Making of Modern Germany Like many conservatives in the early twentieth century, Wilhelm Stapel dreaded the emergence of the faceless ‘crowd’, whose purported lack of will power made it vulnerable to the manipulations of agitators and con men alike. What is the better way to describe the phenomenon, he must have thought, than to coin the term homo cinematicus? This shorthand allowed Stapel not only to cast film as one of the principle dangers facing Germany in the post-1918 period, but also to associate modernity with the demise of individuality, high culture and emotional self-control. Andreas Killen’s new book, which is set to become a standard work on cinema in the inter-war period, relates Stapel’s epithet to the way in which Germans viewed film as a means to produce both new kinds of knowledge and new kinds of subjectivities. The study’s leitmotif is ‘the many faceted engagement of experts in psychiatry and other human sciences with the medium of film’ (p. 4), including debates on motion pictures as cultural trash (Schund); the association between the cinematic and the hypnotic experience; film as a form of public enlightenment and the fear, widespread especially in right-wing circles, that regular visits to the movie theatre would give rise to dangerous superstitions. As Killen’s dense narrative unfolds, the reader is able to identify two main issues underlying all of these debates. The first one pertains to boundary marking. The legal, psychiatric and government experts were keen to distinguish between film as education or enlightenment (Aufklärungsfilm) and film as trash or entertainment. In the former case, cinema could serve an important function in informing the public about sexual hygiene, psychoanalysis, homosexuality, industrial accidents or eugenic sterilization. Not surprisingly, only experts could determine the difference between enlightenment and entertainment. Yet as the author demonstrates, the public did not always accept this distinction. Some critics, for example, argued that Aufklärungsfilme were trash masquerading as science, not least because the pictures relied on sensational experiments and conventional plot lines to bring across their message. Even the best-intentioned of efforts came to naught, the sceptics argued, by the film’s actual effects. Indeed, one of Killen’s most important findings concerns the new rationale for censorship, reflected most prominently in the passage of the Reich Motion Picture Law in 1920. From now on, censorship was to be based on the supposed effects of movies (defined primarily in psychological language) rather than their problematic contents. Stapel’s image of the homo cinematicus, easily duped by the medium’s power of suggestion, informed this new paradigm. In the Third Reich, finally, ‘enlightenment fatigue’ amongst moviegoers meant that the regime’s ‘enlightened totalitarianism’ (in the shape of racist and eugenic propaganda) had to be offset by the production of popular blockbusters. The second theme running through the work is that of disciplinary power or governmentality. Killen cites Foucault repeatedly and embraces Lutz Raphael’s separation between a period of social reform (1880–1910) and a period of social engineering (1920–1945). Many of the debates recounted in the volume touch on the extent to which film would allow for knowledge of and control over the public. The Aufklärungsfilm was the most obvious example of this endeavour to lay down new norms of health. But other pictures too—whether demonstrating the efficacy of medical hypnosis or diagnosing hysteria and schizophrenia—claimed to provide knowledge that would contribute to medical reform or, much less benignly, state-sponsored mass murder. Although Killen is sensitive to the open-endedness of Weimar (referring to Rüdiger Graf, Moritz Foellmer and Edward Ross Dickinson in doing so), he remains beholden to Foucault’s pessimistic notion of psychiatric power as well as to the equally pessimistic notion of a post-war ‘ontological crisis’ (p. 168). Many sections of the book support this approach. Even so, alternative interpretations in line with Graf and Dickinson could be offered as well. For instance, Killen relies heavily on a few famous scholars (Emil Kraepelin and Karl Bonhoeffer) to contend that the scientific community warned against the effects of hypnosis (as depicted in cinema or performed by charlatans, pp. 48, 121, 124). Other psychiatrists, however, were much more optimistic, highlighting the resilience of the ‘moral inhibitions’ that could be found in most middle-class individuals. In fact, the discourse on hypnosis often centered on the perceived struggle, located within a particular ‘personality’, between an individual’s ‘character’ or ‘soul’ and the infiltration by a foreign or hostile force. While Adolf A. Friedländer, Hans Bürger-Prinz and Heinrich Többen believed in the power of the ‘moral inhibitions’, Kreapelin and Bonhoeffer doubted that these were sufficient to withstand hypnosis. The optimists, it needs to be stressed, did not belong to a minority: only in 1936 did a German court side with those who held that hypnosis was capable of bringing about a state of abulia (Willenlosigkeit) so powerful that the hypnotic could be compelled to commit crimes. Homo Cinematicus contains some repetition and the occasional overreliance on jargon. It also contains problematic expressions (‘Eastern Jewish qualities’, p. 165) and juxtapositions (between ‘Germans’ and Jews’, p. 59). Still, Killen has written an excellent work and made a major contribution to our understanding of German cinema in the twentieth century. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png German History Oxford University Press

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

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved.
ISSN
0266-3554
eISSN
1477-089X
D.O.I.
10.1093/gerhis/ghx099
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Abstract

Like many conservatives in the early twentieth century, Wilhelm Stapel dreaded the emergence of the faceless ‘crowd’, whose purported lack of will power made it vulnerable to the manipulations of agitators and con men alike. What is the better way to describe the phenomenon, he must have thought, than to coin the term homo cinematicus? This shorthand allowed Stapel not only to cast film as one of the principle dangers facing Germany in the post-1918 period, but also to associate modernity with the demise of individuality, high culture and emotional self-control. Andreas Killen’s new book, which is set to become a standard work on cinema in the inter-war period, relates Stapel’s epithet to the way in which Germans viewed film as a means to produce both new kinds of knowledge and new kinds of subjectivities. The study’s leitmotif is ‘the many faceted engagement of experts in psychiatry and other human sciences with the medium of film’ (p. 4), including debates on motion pictures as cultural trash (Schund); the association between the cinematic and the hypnotic experience; film as a form of public enlightenment and the fear, widespread especially in right-wing circles, that regular visits to the movie theatre would give rise to dangerous superstitions. As Killen’s dense narrative unfolds, the reader is able to identify two main issues underlying all of these debates. The first one pertains to boundary marking. The legal, psychiatric and government experts were keen to distinguish between film as education or enlightenment (Aufklärungsfilm) and film as trash or entertainment. In the former case, cinema could serve an important function in informing the public about sexual hygiene, psychoanalysis, homosexuality, industrial accidents or eugenic sterilization. Not surprisingly, only experts could determine the difference between enlightenment and entertainment. Yet as the author demonstrates, the public did not always accept this distinction. Some critics, for example, argued that Aufklärungsfilme were trash masquerading as science, not least because the pictures relied on sensational experiments and conventional plot lines to bring across their message. Even the best-intentioned of efforts came to naught, the sceptics argued, by the film’s actual effects. Indeed, one of Killen’s most important findings concerns the new rationale for censorship, reflected most prominently in the passage of the Reich Motion Picture Law in 1920. From now on, censorship was to be based on the supposed effects of movies (defined primarily in psychological language) rather than their problematic contents. Stapel’s image of the homo cinematicus, easily duped by the medium’s power of suggestion, informed this new paradigm. In the Third Reich, finally, ‘enlightenment fatigue’ amongst moviegoers meant that the regime’s ‘enlightened totalitarianism’ (in the shape of racist and eugenic propaganda) had to be offset by the production of popular blockbusters. The second theme running through the work is that of disciplinary power or governmentality. Killen cites Foucault repeatedly and embraces Lutz Raphael’s separation between a period of social reform (1880–1910) and a period of social engineering (1920–1945). Many of the debates recounted in the volume touch on the extent to which film would allow for knowledge of and control over the public. The Aufklärungsfilm was the most obvious example of this endeavour to lay down new norms of health. But other pictures too—whether demonstrating the efficacy of medical hypnosis or diagnosing hysteria and schizophrenia—claimed to provide knowledge that would contribute to medical reform or, much less benignly, state-sponsored mass murder. Although Killen is sensitive to the open-endedness of Weimar (referring to Rüdiger Graf, Moritz Foellmer and Edward Ross Dickinson in doing so), he remains beholden to Foucault’s pessimistic notion of psychiatric power as well as to the equally pessimistic notion of a post-war ‘ontological crisis’ (p. 168). Many sections of the book support this approach. Even so, alternative interpretations in line with Graf and Dickinson could be offered as well. For instance, Killen relies heavily on a few famous scholars (Emil Kraepelin and Karl Bonhoeffer) to contend that the scientific community warned against the effects of hypnosis (as depicted in cinema or performed by charlatans, pp. 48, 121, 124). Other psychiatrists, however, were much more optimistic, highlighting the resilience of the ‘moral inhibitions’ that could be found in most middle-class individuals. In fact, the discourse on hypnosis often centered on the perceived struggle, located within a particular ‘personality’, between an individual’s ‘character’ or ‘soul’ and the infiltration by a foreign or hostile force. While Adolf A. Friedländer, Hans Bürger-Prinz and Heinrich Többen believed in the power of the ‘moral inhibitions’, Kreapelin and Bonhoeffer doubted that these were sufficient to withstand hypnosis. The optimists, it needs to be stressed, did not belong to a minority: only in 1936 did a German court side with those who held that hypnosis was capable of bringing about a state of abulia (Willenlosigkeit) so powerful that the hypnotic could be compelled to commit crimes. Homo Cinematicus contains some repetition and the occasional overreliance on jargon. It also contains problematic expressions (‘Eastern Jewish qualities’, p. 165) and juxtapositions (between ‘Germans’ and Jews’, p. 59). Still, Killen has written an excellent work and made a major contribution to our understanding of German cinema in the twentieth century. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved.

Journal

German HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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