Disillusionment and Fear Following WWI

Following the First World War, a sense of disillusionment fell over Europe, and Germany especially. In his 1920 film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene depicts the bewilderment of the German people after losing the war, as well as a general apprehension about change in the world. On the surface, Wiene’s film may seem like merely a horror movie, but it is, like all art, influenced by the ideas and events of the time, giving us a glimpse of interwar thinking.

In the early 19th century, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein served as a cautionary tale about the dangers of science and attempting to play God. Bertrand Russell discusses the dangers of science, as well, in Icarus or The Future of Science, in 1924, a century after Shelley. At this point, technological advances are occurring in many fields, such as manufacturing and science. Russell warns, “physiology will in time find ways of controlling emotion, which it is scarcely possible to doubt.” He fears that someday people will be able to control others with hormone injections, and make them do their bidding. This fear is brought to life in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Dr. Caligari is a physiologist who controls one of his patients by keeping him asleep through hypnosis, then waking him and forcing him to murder people. Not only does this show the evil of playing God, in the end, the whole story was just the main character’s hallucination, who is himself an inmate at a mental institution. This represents the disenchantment of the time, especially in Germany. The German people thought that President Wilson’s Fourteen Points would be the basis of the peace treaty, but instead all of the guilt and economic burden of the war are placed on Germany’s shoulders, while at the same time, Germany is being stripped of her economic resources.

The time period after World War One was an awakening. The war had caused destruction and death of an unprecedented amount.  To express disillusionment with the world, many people turned to the arts. Why the arts? Why, especially, film? Why was and is film such a strong medium for conveying ideas? What is it about film that makes it so powerful? Or is film not powerful, and some other form of art is the best form of self and ideological expression? Why?

4 thoughts on “Disillusionment and Fear Following WWI

  1. Great job making connections with the film, and the state of Germany post-World War I. I think you brought up an interesting point when you connected the hallucination in the film to Germany during the inter-war period. For your discussion questions, I think that film was a popular form of communicating strong ideas because it was a fairly subtle political statement. Film was both entertaining, and encouraged people in Germany to contemplate important issues that pertained to their state.

  2. I agree with Isabel. This is a great post and I especially liked the link you made between the treaty and the film. Film expresses art and ideas in a way that people can easily identify with and get lost in. It’s like a book in the sense that it can take the audience to another world. Film, however, is a bit more consuming for the average person because it can be watched and absorbed with less effort than reading. It works as a form of propaganda because it is disguised as a simple form of entertainment, rather than a political statement–especially certain genres like horror. (Also just a side note, I’m not too sure about the Interwar Period, but after WWII French films turned to the issue of the war and the Resistance to explain both positive and negative reactions and experiences. This seems to be similar to the way in which some countries and artists responded to the chaos of WWI.)

  3. Good job comparing Dr. Caligary’s use of manipulative tactics to that of the hormone injections mentioned in Russell’s article, as they are very closely linked to each other. As the previous comments have mentioned, film is an effective medium of communication because it is a very passive activity that people can easily engage in. The messages are also oftentimes subliminal, so that the people watching them can be entertained while at the same time absorb the underlying political statements.

  4. Excellent post. Top to bottom you wrote a great summary, critical analysis, and left thought provoking questions. Specifically I enjoyed your connections with a myriad of different types of sources, Mary Shelly and Bertrand Russell’s book, and showing them in context with Wilson’s fourteen points. I think you did good work capturing the way this film affected people through your analysis. The questions you pose in the conclusion about new mediums follows close to what your points are, but perhaps making the questions a little tighter to the subject you analyzed could strengthen the post.

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