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?

The Fear of Science

As scientific advancement became increasingly prevalent in Europe after World War I, the elation and excitement that accompanied these developments was coupled with the fear and apprehension of certain members of that society.  One prominent voice to that effect was Bertrand Russell, who argued in Icarus, or, the Future of Science that “science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups, rather than to make men happy.” (Russell)  The basis of Russell’s argument lies in his presupposition that people lack the strength of morals necessary to guide them as science allows for a more comfortable and efficient lifestyle.  Because men are “bundles of passions and instincts,” the power and expedience granted by cutting edge science and technology will lead to a tumultuous climate of animalistic power grabbing that will ultimately lead to the demise of European society. (Russell)  These apprehensions towards scientific study are further reflected in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a German horror film about a mental asylum director who attempts to master the condition of somnabulism in order to manipulate its victims into carrying out his murderous ambitions.

In order to fairly assess the validity of Russell’s argument, it is necessary to first make his aforementioned controversial presumption: “Men’s collective passions are mainly evil.” (Russell).  Russell was not alone in this position; even Carl Mayer & Hanz Janowitz created the fictional Dr. Caligari to be eventually driven insane by his own desperate pursuit of knowledge for immoral purposes. (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) To this end, it follows logically that because science will allow men to work toward these passions with greater expediency, it will thus accelerate the decline of society.  According to Russell, the most prominent of these evil passions is political self-interest, which could lead to absurd risk-taking in the name of competition and a narcissistic abuse of eugenics for the purpose of creating a society in the image of those in power.

The primary caveat that I find in Icarus is its near total lack of research. Russell even openly acknowledges at several points that his arguments are based upon conjecture (i.e. “I forget where I read this, but if my memory serves me it was in some reliable source”; “I am only suggesting possibilities which it may be instructive to consider”). (Russell)  Despite this, Russell’s piece and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are both still useful as images of the trepidation with which some Europeans regarded the increasingly rapid advances in the field of science after World War I. 

Discussion Question: Do you think that the surrealist imagery (i.e. costumes, sets, art direction) in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was an entirely aesthetic choice, or was it chosen specifically to support the message of the filmmakers?