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Art + History - Film & World War I

In a 2015 interview with Interview Magazine, horror film auteur John Carpenter (Halloween) declared, “horror is a reaction, not a genre” (Portner). Though he wasn’t specifically speaking of horror film’s crystallization in the aftermath of World War I, he might as well have been.

Throughout the Progressive Era, the film industry was establishing itself as a distinctly working-class form of entertainment, with films taking on urban issues of unions, greedy, draconian bosses, and rights of the laborer. At the time, the burgeoning movie industry was also changing cityscapes to the point that, after 1905, movies were responsible for helping “redefine public space by transforming city streets into bustling recreational thoroughfares that were open to everyone” (Ross, 22). While films had started out as a leisurely activity that catered to those who could not afford grand operas and posh theater seats, the idea of ‘going to the movies’ had steadily become a pastime for many, with theater architecture shifting to accommodate whatever economic class dominated in any particular area.

Then came World War I, a viciously industrialized form of warfare whose veterans where sent home with severe physical mutilations and mental traumas. At once sensitive to seismic cultural shifts but also determined to spearhead changes, cinema played a mirror game, not only featuring films with monsters whose physicality echoed the injuries of returning soldiers, but whose storylines were twisted and demented, dovetailing the psychology of the audience. The result was the horror genre, a genre that featured armies “of the living dead, séances gone wrong, vampires, mirrors as deadly invitations to another world, murderous slashers - all these appear in the work of the directors of the First World era” (Grainger). In essence, it can be argued that, to deal with the man-made monsters of the war, post-war audiences and filmmakers had to exercise their demons on screen, giving them form and definition, as if to ease the ambiguity that only gave fear a weightier shadow.

The genesis of post-World War I horror films owes much of its existence to German Expressionism. While it is important to note that German Expressionism was a vast art movement that included paintings and novels, when it came to German Expressionist film, it was a complex and intricate style of cinema, seen as a “protest against the norm: the extremes of language in the plays and manifestos, the alienating and menacing cityscapes of the graphic art, the grotesque and caricatured figures of paintings, the sinister shadows and unbalanced images of the films, and the recurring themes of madness, duplicity and alienation” (Telotte, 16). Everything about World War I was extreme and a disruption of the norm with cityscapes and countryside turned into nightmarish tableaus, settings that echoed the anxieties and trepidations that scarred the psyches of millions. Thus, to understand the trauma of the war, one can examine German Expressionist films, for they were “more than just a style of creating works of art or of telling a story; rather it was more of a mindset that had social, cultural and political aspects” (German Expressionist Collection). The films were a reactionary and cinematic synthesis of mood, outlook and mentality.

Two films in particular can be used to specifically understand the mood of the post World War I era: Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In Nosferatu, Count Orlok summons Thomas Hutter to his castle in the mountains of Transylvania. But Orlok truly wants to own a house to live near Hutter and Ellen, his wife. After Orlock reveals himself to be a vampire, Hutter, knowing his wife is in danger, tries to escape the gothic palace. While it can be argued that the film reflects German xenophobia - with Orlock as the outsider who must be feared - the metaphors go deeper. In the wake of a war that wrought death, mutilation and disease, audiences saw deeper meaning in the film as “profound metaphors were perceived, with Nosferatu and his accompanying plague representing aspects of human malaise, particularly the German soul itself in the wrenching years during and immediately following World War I” (Hollywood Gothic, 88). Nosferatu’s presence lingers over the characters in a sinister way that is overpowering in its reach; much like the war and its aftermath. In this way, the art of the film presents audiences for years to come with a keyhole into the weariness and despondent stasis of audiences recovering from the international conflict.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a 1920 film whose jagged set and puzzle-pieces of horizon act as a Burton-esq prototype that is familiar to audiences today. Dr. Caligari is a crazed pseudo-psychiatrist who has his very own somnambulist, Cesare. Really, Cesare is a man Dr. Caligari hypnotizes and who is clairvoyant. When Cesare predicts the death of Alan, a man visiting them at the carnival, and Alan turns up dead, naturally Cesare is blamed. But, is he really guilty, or is he being manipulated by the crazed doctor? A juggernaut of German cinema during the Weimar Republic, the film was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. Both were “so affected by the war that they wrote The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as a response to the unchecked governmental authority that the war was both born of and nourished by” (Kryah). In essence, Cesare was the sleepwalking masses who went to war and were slaughtered for their conformity.

While the sets of Caligari have often called to mind references to Cubism, many film historians disagree, citing the fact that Cubism centers on stylized angles, whereas Caligari is more of an atheistic homage to theatrical expressionism, “which forced conventional visual perspective into emotionally charged configurations. Cubism, by contrast, was more analytical and scientific” (The Monster Show, 40). Either way, analyzing the film still offers audiences a chance to weave through the artistic labyrinths of the early twentieth century. Behind-the-scenes set drama also offers an understanding of artistic politics of the day. Once production began, the writers were horrified to learn that - what had been intended as a scathing political lambaste of government manipulation in war - had been rewritten into only a mild rebuke of what had happened. The film was given a prologue and epilogue, with Caligari himself being “presented as a tragic figure, the victim of mental illness. In a single stroke, the film’s political back was broken, at least in the opinion of the writers” (The Monster Show, 43). Still, with the following intertitle, it was impossible for audiences then and now to not connect the horrors of the film with the horrors of the war:

There are spirits everywhere….They are all around us…They have driven me from hearth and home, from my wife and children.

In a 2011 interview with Vulture, John Carpenter identified that there were two types of horror film: “internal and external. In external horror films, the evil comes from the outside, the other tribe, this thing in the darkness that we don’t understand. Internal is the human heart” (Abrams).

In looking at Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it becomes obvious that filmmakers tapped into both the physical and cerebral horrors that haunted audiences in the aftermath of World War I. As an art form, film often have their finger on the pop cultural pulse, again both acting as a catalyst of trends and a responder of movements. Without the human-precipitated atrocities of war, horror films might have evolved differently, perhaps in a way that would almost feel sedate and tame. As it stands, iconic films of the era remind audiences of every era that the epilogue of war casts a long shadow…all the way into the darkness of the theater.

Works Cited

Carpenter, John. Interview with Dave Portner. Interview Magazine, February 2, 2015. Online.

Carpenter, John. Interview with Simon Abrams. “The Soft-Spoken John Carpenter on How He Chooses and His Box-Office Failures,” Vulture Magazine, July 6, 2011. Online

“German Expressionist Collection”. University of Maryland Library Research Guides.

Grainger, James. “How the First World War Created the Horror Genre.” Toronto Star. November 11, 2018. Accessed 12 January, 2021.

Kryah, Kevin. “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Dark Relationship with Postwar Germany,” The Artifice, May 9, 2015. Accessed 12 January, 2021.

Ross, Steven J. Working-Class Hollywood. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Skal, David J. The Monster Show. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993.

Skal, David J. Hollywood Gothic. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

Telotte, J.P. “German Expressionism: A Cinematic/Cultural Problem.” Traditions in World Cinema, edited by Linda Badley, R. Barton Palmer and Steven Jay Schneider, Edinburgh University Press, 2006, pp. 15-28.

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