German Expressionist Cinema: The Modern Gothic and The Uncanny Double

Posted by Timothy Jones on October 09, 2018 in Uncategorized tagged with , ,


By Jamie Wood


German Expressionist cinema exudes Gothic revival motifs: fairytale motifs, angular exteriors, claustrophobic interiors’[1] as well as for humanoids, vampires, automata, doubles, including other creatures hovering between man and beast and man and machine and living in the twilight zone of power and madness.’[2] In Thomas Elsaesser’s Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary, ‘Weimar cinema came to epitomize a country: ‘twentieth-century Germany, uneasy with itself and troubled by a modernity that was to bring yet more appalling disasters to Europe. The German nation is haunted by its cinema screen, and the films are haunted by German history.’[3] Germany during this time was facing the repercussion of losing in the First World War. Humiliated by this and the payments the nation had to pay due to the Treaty of Versailles, the people began to the see the influences of this failure. This feeling is a physical representation of Freud’s Unheimlich or uncanny and unhomely.

According to Thomas Elsaesser, Weimar cinema expresses another Freudian theory. He states that this particular form of cinema uses the Freudian Nachtraglichkeit. This theory states that a trauma experience in the past can be expressed and felt again in the present or future as if a person was in that exact state and this is done in order to determine the root cause of the trauma.[4]  Nachtraglichkeit, or deferred action, is being used in German expressionist cinema ‘as if an event was looking for its cause, of which it could claim to be the consequence.’[5] Germany that existed pre-Weimar Era is the history that haunts and traumatizes the nation and the fear of what is to come, politically creates anxiety in German society from the trauma. This is what is expressed in Weimar cinema and this Freudian theory is what has allowed Gothic motifs to occur in the art form.

There is a doubling thematically in German Expressionist cinema, the doubling of societal aspects and within the drama as well. Twentieth century German cinema was unlike its counterparts. Germany was in a state of unease and isolation from the rest of Europe which created the genre of Weimar cinema. Weimar cinema is not just like any other period of German cinema, it is this cinema’s historical imaginary, which suggest that it is ‘the German cinema and its double’: in fact, it became a Doppelganger of its own pre-history.’[6]  German Expressionist film 1910-1920s and Weimar, though overlapping since Weimar cinema was more expressed during the 1920s and in the context of the early years of Weimar, were set in the ‘uncertain and unsettling social and political context’ of the nation post World War I.[7]

Germany was under the Weimar Republic specifically during the years—1919 to 1933— that has been constituted for German Expressionist film and Weimar cinema. At the end of the first World War, German government officials convened in Weimar to create a new constitution for the nation. Once created the country faced many afflictions including hyperinflation, their loss in the world, and complying with the Treaty of Versailles. Coincidentally, Germany was divided politically between the extreme right and left[8], making it the perfect literal example of the Gothic double motif.

The Gothic trope of the double is traditionally seen or exemplified in works during times of repression or anxiety. According to Fred Botting, ‘Repression thus becomes a function of narrativisation, as the translation of enigmas coming from the other, and also as continual self-theorisation.’[9] Repression and anxiety to the social other sets the frame, narration, message, and thematic aspect of Gothic fiction. In order to embody this anxiety experienced in a nation—society—we see a creation of a doubled body. Botting states that there is no longer ‘an alternation (there is no other nation, no ‘other’ location) but a foreign body, implanted, surrounded by messages endlessly remade, the recasting of untranslatable message.’[10] There is now a physical entity and, in regards to film, this other ‘doubled’ entity can be physically seen inn Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Out of the characters in the film, Maria is the only made as the double. I found this significant because of uncanny parallels between the anxieties within the society as well as the anxieties connected to women and the female body. This idea is a common theme found in Expressionist cinema and, especially, Weimar Cinema. Anjeana Hans explains how ‘Again and again, Weimar film stages the female body first empowered, then overpowered, violated, or eradicated’ and Maria exemplifies this in its entirety.[11] Using the characterization of female characters in Weimar and Expressionist cinema, I will show how the doubling experienced by German society is personified by the character Maria. Maria is the embodiment of social anxieties in Germany during this specific time while also using a female character to hint at gender anxieties as well.

[1]Thomas Elsaesser, Weimar cinema and after: Germany’s historical imaginary pp.20

[2] Mark Jancovich, Film histories: an introduction and reader pp. 130

[3] Thomas Elsaesser, Weimar cinema and after: Germany’s historical imaginary pp. 3

[4] Jean Laplanche, Life and Death in Psychoanalysis pp.41

[5] Thomas Elsaesser, Weimar cinema and after: Germany’s historical imaginary pp.4

[6] Thomas Elsaesser, Weimar cinema and after: Germany’s historical imaginary pp.4

[7] Thomas Elsaesser, Dietrich Scheunemann, ed. Expressionist film: new perspectives. pp. 2

[8] Sally Marks, The Illusion of Peace: International Relations in Europe 1918-1933 pp. 72

[9] Fred Botting, The Gothic: Essays and Studies pp. 12

[10] Fred Botting, The Gothic: Essays and Studies pp. 13

[11]Anjeana K. Hans, Gender and the Uncanny in Films of the Weimar Republic pp. 2

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