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Film predictions

Interview: Jochen Kürten / kbmSeptember 4, 2014

Did German filmmakers predict the rise of National Socialism? Rüdiger Suchsland's documentary on the topic premiered in Venice. He tells DW how film foresaw Hitler and why there should be more interest in cinema history.

Scene from "From Caligari to Hitler" by Rüdiger Suchsland, Copyright: Copyright: 71st Venice International Film Festival
Image: 71st Venice International Film Festival

It was a small sensation that the premiere of a documentary film - "From Caligari to Hitler" - took place at one of the world's most significant film festivals. The film was screened as part of the Venice Classics series, alongside restored historical cinematic masterpieces like "Mouchette" by Robert Bresson and "Stolen Kisses" by Francois Truffauts.

"From Caligari to Hitler" is film critic Rüdiger Suchsland's directorial debut. The title is a reference to the 1920 silent film, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," largely regarded as the first horror film. Suchsland's documentary focuses on the 1920s and 30s - the heyday of German cinema - and examines journalist and film theorist Sigfried Kracauer's famous thesis that German filmmakers supposedly predicted the rise of National Socialism in their works.

DW: Mr. Suchsland, were you surprised to receive an invitation to the Venice Film Festival?

Rüdiger Suchsland: Yes, I was very surprised. It's my first film. It's hard to say how it's going to turn out when a film critic who wasn't trained as a filmmaker makes a film. I think my invitation to Venice can be attributed to the wonderful historical footage by camera professionals like Karl Freund. Excerpts from well known films like "Metropolis" (1927) and "Nosferatu" (1922) are included. It didn't have a whole lot to do with my directing.

Director Rüdiger Suchsland, Copyright: 71st Venice International Film Festival
'From Caligari to Hitler" is film critic Rüdiger Suchsland's directing debutImage: 71st Venice International Film Festival

The film was screened as part of the Venice Classics series, which mainly presented restored masterpieces and rediscoveries.

There are many documentary films about cinema. The historical consciousness in cinema is not as strong as, let's say, in literature, where a new edition of a book by Fontane or Schiller would be covered by the newspapers and compared with previous editions. In cinema, television, and motion pictures, we don't have this kind of tradition of dealing with the history of the medium. That's of course because it's the newest medium.

There should be a lot more [attention paid to film history] because all of the new films are based on the classics. Today, many people's knowledge of film, even at film schools, begins with Quentin Tarantino.

What does the title "From Caligari to Hitler" mean?

That was the title of a book by Sigfried Kracauer. He was the leading film critic during the Weimar Republic. To some extent, he invented the field of film criticism in post-war Germany. Kracauer wrote for the daily newspaper "Frankfurter Zeitung," the most important newspaper of the time, and wrote about this period.

Scene from "From Caligari to Hitler" by Rüdiger Suchsland, Copyright: Copyright: 71st Venice International Film Festival
German film had its heyday in the pre-war eraImage: 71st Venice International Film Festival

As a Jew, a liberal, and a left-wing author, he left Germany rather quickly in March 1933. He first went into exile in Paris, then wrote his book while in exile in the United States. The subtitle of the book is "A Psychological History of the German Film." That says exactly what he means. He takes German cinema and tries to find a psychological message, even using Sigmund Freud's methods of psychoanalysis. He analyzes the hidden elements, not the obvious things in the films.

On the other hand, he examines cinema as a mass medium, as a kind of indicator, a seismograph of the collective consciousness - and not least, of a collective subconsciousness. That's how he views the films: What elements can be found of the fascism that came later, or of totalitarian thinking in general? What elements of violence, war, genocide, and the murder of European Jews?

But Kracauer's thesis was also disputed.

Some said that, since he started the book in 1942, it was too simple. It was apparent what would come out of his examination. But the thesis wasn't that primitive. Kracauer first examined the individual films; he didn't just present a broad thesis. He found out that German film - much more than all the other films from other countries during this time - has many more mass murders, many more tyrants, crazy scientists, authoritarian fathers.

Somehow you have to explain where this fascination with murderers, violence, manipulation and hypnosis came from. No matter what you think about German cinema from that era, you still have to explain why these figures appeared.

Filmstill aus DrMabuse
Suchsland says German film has a fascination with crazy, violent and evil murderers - like "Dr. Mabuse"Image: Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung

How well known is Kracauer's book today?

Very widespread. That surprised me. But it's less well known in Germany. When you discuss it abroad, whether it's in the US, in Spain, or in all of the Romance-speaking countries, then the book is very well known. It's a standard work about cinema in the 20th century and German film. [Eds: Kracauer's book was published in 1947.]

Films like "Nosferatur" and "Berlin, Symphony of a Great City," "The Blue Angel," "Metropolis" or "M" are extremely famous. They're often more famous abroad, where there is more interest in history. People know that German film was the most important in the world during the 1920s - sometimes even more important than Hollywood. Hollywood essentially advanced when immigrants from Europe started coming over, such as filmmakers Ernst Lubitsch or Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, who immigrated before Hitler and 1933. And then there was Fritz Lang, who went to the US in 1933.