Movies have long reflected the obsessions and anxieties of the massive audience watching them. But can they also shape public opinion and condition people to accept certain ideas over time? These are the issues at the heart of “From Caligari To Hitler: Imagining The Tyrant,” an episode of the web series Between The Lines by YouTuber and movie critic Kyle Kallgren. The episode takes its inspiration (and the first half of its title) from a seminal, still controversial 1947 book by Siegfried Kracauer, who examined the supposedly “escapist“ German films from the Weimar era (1919-33)—including The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari—and found that these films foretold the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Kallgren points out that the directors and actors who worked on these films were not Nazi sympathizers. Many actually fled Germany to escape Hitler. But it is possible that Weimar cinema trained the public to think that shadowy tyrants are inevitable and ultimately unstoppable. After watching Caligari, in which the title villain dispatches a sleepwalker to do his bidding, Hitler no longer seems so far-fetched. The movies of this era, though not intended as such, may have been the most powerful propaganda of all. Kallgren zips forward to Hollywood movies from the 1980s to the present, including The Lego Movie, 300, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Guardians Of The Galaxy, and sees in them numerous examples of fascism.
But not all of the fascists are the bad guys this time. Superheroes and action stars practice their own form of authoritarian rule by force. Some of it’s a stretch, but it’s an interesting look at the way our pop culture can inform the real world.