Commentary Magazine

From Caligari to Hitler, by Siegfried Kracauer; and Magic and Myth of the Movies, by Parker Tyler

It is an aim of this department to encourage discussion of significant issues raised by current books. Good reviewers, we have found, have independent judgment and often fresh points of view, and we afford them wide latitude for the expression of their individual opinions. (That these opinions may or may not be in accord with the opinions of the editors hardly needs mentioning.) We welcome the expression of views by authors and readers that differ from those expressed here, and we provide ample space for such discussion.



The Hidden Movie

From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film
by Siegfried Kracauer.
Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1947. .361 pp. $5.00.

Magic and Myth of the Movies.
by Parker Tyler.
New York, Holt, 1947. 283 pp. $3.50.


In both of these books the primary assumption is made that movies are peculiarly suited to the expression of unconscious tendencies, and that, on analysis, films can be made to reveal mass psychological preoccupations. Also, both authors (but especially Dr. Kracauer) believe further that even the pattern—not only the substance—of the mass mentality can be divined by a subtle, interior investigation of movie plots and action. But here the similarity between the books ends.

The framework of Mr. Tyler’s criticism is intensely personal, and his mode of expression is surrealist. Dr. Kracauer, on the other hand, is a scholar, and his investigation exhibits a consistent unity of purpose, which is to depict the conflicts in the German mind that eventuated in Hitler. His study owes its superb form to the diversity of social materials which he uses in its construction.

The thesis of Dr. Kracauer’s heavily documented work is that the German film under the Weimar Republic exhibited a consistent concern with a duality which he identifies variously as tyranny-chaos, submission-rebellion, etc., etc. Under the stress of this concern, which was produced by a political impasse and consequent social deterioration, the German mind as pictured in the films showed a psychological regression. That is, there was a decreasing degree of willingness and capacity to seek a realistic social solution of personal problems. Dr. Kracauer asserts that a concept of genuine freedom was never presented on the German screen, although there was manifest a tendency groping toward such a solution.

After outlining the small beginnings of the German film, and the impetus given to the industry by the needs of the First World War, Dr. Kracauer divides the period 1918-1933 into three sections. The character of the first or postwar period, extending from 1918 to 1924, was determined by Germany’s isolation from the rest of the world, the short-lived burst of freedom of the German “revolution,” and the devastating inflation. The middle class retreated into a psychological shell, which was mirrored adequately by the studio-produced fantasies of the time. The early works of Fritz Lang and the unique Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are examples. From 1924 to 1929 the German cinema reversed itself completely, becoming just as much externalized as formerly it had been internalized. The chief figure of this stabilization period was G. W. Pabst, whose realistic technique owed much to the early Russian films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin. The deeper themes of the postwar period became more veiled and distorted, but did not disappear, in the realistic productions of this second period. With the help of the Dawes Plan, German trade had revived; the face of reality became more attractive. But it was a false prosperity—nothing really had been resolved.

The economic collapse of 1929 set the stage for the last act of the Weimar Republic. The cinema of the immediate pre-Hitler period (1930-1933) showed a growth of purely escapist productions and of an unreal optimism more or less alien to Germany. But there were also direct manifestations of the approaching denouement. The paralysis of the stabilized period dissolved: “As in the postwar period, the German screen became a battleground of conflicting inner tendencies.” There were films of pro-Nazi tendency, and there were even Communist films such as Kuhle Wampe. But in the end, authoritarian leanings and other aspects of psychological retrogression won out. “The impact of pro-Nazi dispositions seemed to upset all sober considerations.” Especially the sober platitudes of the Social Democrats, which “lacked the support of strong emotions.” And once Hitler was in power, the fictive characters that had dominated the Weimar screen began to emerge in actual life itself.

The most impressive aspect of Dr. Kracauer’s book is his method. From Caligari to Hitler contains a history of the film industry and constant references to the objective political and historical events taking place in German society as well as careful analysis of the thematic material and recurrent symbols of the German film. While by no means ignoring aesthetic values—in which the German film of that period was relatively prodigal—Dr. Kracauer’s main emphasis is consistently social and psychological, and the result is a superbly well-rounded work, extremely provocative and rewarding. Even more than the actual history itself, the method employed will be of great value to American students of the movies. (Included in the volume is the author’s widely remarked monograph, “Propaganda and the Nazi War Film,” published in 1942 by the Museum of Modern Art Film Library.)



It is method that also affords the most pertinent point of comparison between Dr. Kracauer’s book and Parker Tyler’s Magic and Myth of the Movies. Method, and also the fact that one writer has described, with systematic thoroughness, the cinema of a German society that no longer exists, while the other gives us occasionally brilliant impressions of the movie-mill of an American society that has not yet fully come into being. Mr. Tyler’s criticism is valuable exclusively for its brilliant sparks of insight, its occasional poetry, its often amazing suggestiveness. That is because he does not write within a framework of objective fact. He is, as a matter of fact, forever writing a drama of critical self-consciousness. (He concludes the present volume with a recapitulation of its critical content, which he forces into the senseless mold of a “Scenario for a Comedy of Critical Hallucination”—an exhibition quite embarrassing to any reader more interested in the movies than in Parker Tyler.)

In his first, very brilliant book, The Hollywood Hallucination (1944), Mr. Tyler’s psychoanalytic-surrealist approach paid huge dividends; the book contained so much inspiration and poetry that it really could not have been other than it was. But it seemed apparent that if he was to write a sequel, his work would have to move in the direction of a broader system of reference. Mr. Tyler himself was aware of this, and his effort in the present book is to relate his insights to the magic and myth of primitives, especially as described by Sir James Frazer. But all this adds very little enlightenment, and anyhow was implicit in the first book. He should have moved toward greater social relevance.

Instead, Mr. Tyler has moved away from it. Nothing could illustrate this better than his shockingly bad analysis of The Grapes of Wrath, under the cute chapter-title of “Mirage of the Sunken Bathtub.” When he points out that a motive in the plot is a desire on the part of the underprivileged principals for cleanliness and modern plumbing, he is not incorrect; but he is off the mark to a fantastic degree when he uses this motive as a key to the whole movie and, by inference, to the struggle of dispossessed classes. Such cynicism is not even amusing. And it reveals only too well the manner of his use of psychoanalytic terms.

This manner is somewhat more fruitful, however, in the analyses of Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity and—especially—Arsenic and Old Lace. Mr. Tyler also catches certain essential psychoanalytic qualities in his dissection of war films, but here again aspects of a nervous system are substituted for an entire body. And in a section saucily labeled “Schizophrenia a la Mode,” his loosely held psychiatric terms get completely out of hand and write a chapter all by themselves. The piece called “Supernaturalism at Home,” in which he attempts to demonstrate the other-worldly meanings of many movies, is not so much right or wrong as simply dull. It shows, once and for all, I believe, that Freudianism, and the understanding of myth derived from it, explains poorly any phenomenon when used in isolation. Mr. Tyler does something that Freud never did, that is, he substitutes the dream—in this case, movies—for life itself. Which is only to fall victim to the intention of Hollywood, since the heart of the movies as a social phenomenon consists in their great technical capacity for furthering the dissociation of dream from purpose (which dissociation industrial society itself creates). Whoever concentrates on dream-desires in isolation from actuality simply recapitulates in reverse the basic maladjustment of our society—which is that our process of social and intellectual “growth” slowly but inevitably denudes the real world of imaginative (or dream) elements. These latter then lead a disembodied existence of their own, of which the movies are the chief objectification.

It is well known that actual life requires a purpose; it is not so widely understood that one does not live without dreams. The human being persists in dreaming no matter what his condition may be. But his condition is most satisfactory when his dreams are allied with his real-life interests. Without this interactive alliance between dream and purpose, we are forced to divide ourselves and live in two worlds that are more or less disconnected. And our creativity is severely limited. The consequence is the pursuit of purposes that are not informed by and do not satisfy our dreams, and on the other hand the acceptance of dreams we can never realize: thus the atomized, passive individual of our day.

When Mr. Tyler subscribes to a “theory of meaning as essence rather than as form,” he accepts the purposeless dream and invites a cloud of meaninglessness to settle over actuality, since genuine meaning is created not by essence or form, but by the dream-essence objectifying itself in the form of a realistic purpose. Dr. Kracauer, however—the German catastrophe notwithstanding—is willing to wait and hope, to analyze and to plan for a new organization of dream elements that will restore an acceptable emotional purpose to life. No other kind of purpose will do.

The greatest crime of bourgeois society is that it raises its children to believe that nothing remains left over to contend with when the compromises of “adjustment” are made. We grow up unprepared to deal with our unactualized dream-desires, which are fully as much a part of our lives as the career success we achieve by our compromises. In some form or other, our dreams are forever with us. It is Dr. Kracauer’s thesis that failure to deal with this fact may lead to the transformation of the actual world into a fascist nightmare.



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