A Nazi Style Police State in the Making
the below found here
1931: Sleepwalking Security
Directed by Fritz Lang
110 min.; Germany; Black and White; Mono
Note: this isn't my typical type of post. In fact, it's not really a blog post at all. It's a sneak peak at an article-in-progress. Actually it started out as a paper and I'm slowly transforming it into an article. In the meantime it needs a home where I can continue to flesh it out. Please be aware that it contains spoilers for all four movies. As always, comments and suggestions are welcome.
In January 1933, the National Socialist German Workers Party, led by Adolf Hitler, ascended to power in Germany and struck to undo all of the perceived ills of the Weimar Republic's post-war modernist society. Detection of criminals, as perceived by the Third Reich (political or otherwise), depended on a vigilant network of citizen informants ready to denounce their neighbors as Jews, "bolshies," murderers, subversives, spies, etc. Recent research has shown that police surveillance of public and private behavior in Nazi Germany relied on spontaneous denunciations by a significant minority of the population. The Secret State Police, the Gestapo, depended on a culture of mutual public surveillance in order to exert state dominance over German citizens. However, denunciations, defined as "spontaneous communications from individual citizens to the state...containing accusations of wrongdoing by other citizens or officials and implicitly or explicitly calling for punishment," predate Nazi Germany. Mutual surveillance as a public practice was developed and promoted by police officials in Germany before the Nazi period and was a stated goal of the Berlin police in the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). Some of the best filmmakers working in Germany in the Weimar period made films that reveal an awareness of this phenomenon. Robert Weine, Joe May, F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang were familiar enough with it to weave key scenes around it in some of their most important works: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Asphalt, The Last Man and M respectively.1
The public’s role as observer and informer is explored in the first artistic film success of the Weimar era. Robert Weine’s Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1920) illustrates that memory is unreliable and can produce alternate versions of events that diverge from reality in crucial ways. It also examines the consequences of the public’s role as observers and informers. For most of the film a young student named Francis (Friedrich Feher) tells a fellow the story of Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), a mad hypnotist who fiendishly keeps a somnambulist (Conrad Veidt) under his control and forces the hypnotized subject to unknowingly commit a string of murders in Holstein during the annual carnival. The terror-stricken public denounce a known criminal for the murders and inform the police who throw the man in jail. In fact, he’s innocent of the crimes and the murders continue. Weine’s use of extremely unrealistic, expressionist sets—trapezoidal doorways, streets that meet at a point in the distance, shadows painted on floors and walls—help us to understand that we’re seeing, and feeling, events as imagined in Francis’s mind not as they actually are. In the latter part of the film, a second narrative frames the first and reveals that reality is quite different from what we’ve been watching: Dr. Caligari is actually the benevolent director of the state asylum and Francis, his accuser, is a mad patient under the doctor’s care. Perhaps this framing reality was added to the picture as politically motivated censorship to prevent an authority figure (Dr. Caligari) from being shown as a raving serial murderer, or perhaps it is merely an ingenious plot twist. But, regardless of why this framing reality was added to the picture it provokes a question apropos of the uncertainty that pervaded Weimar society: who do you believe? The man making accusations may be guilty of the very crime that he is accusing someone else of committing. Caligari can be seen as an allegory of the battles by disparate political groups waged for control of Weimar politics which were fought by blaming each other for that society’s ills (the extreme leftists blamed the corporate capitalists, the extreme right blamed the Jews, everybody blamed the ruling social democrats, etc., but who was right?). Moreover, it reveals that as early as 1919, the year that the film was in production, filmmakers in Germany were already criticizing the wisdom of relying on public accusations because those accusations could be wrong. Not only is the wrong man thrown in jail for the murders in Caligari but the man accusing Dr. Caligari of insanity and murder is mad himself. It is important to consider that the alternate version of events in Caligari—Francis is actually mad not the Doctor—is never explained in the inter-titles; only by closely following the events onscreen do we understand how reality has diverged. In this way Weine avoids becoming an authoritarian or an instructor and lets his audience decide the truth about accuser and criminal for themselves. 2
In Der Letzte Mann (The Last Man), a 1924 film by F.W. Murnau, Germans in a working class neighborhood of Berlin do not denounce a criminal for illegal activity but rather they publicly deride a fellow citizen for losing his job and social status. The film centers around a once proud porter (Emil Jannings) for the extravagant Hotel Atlantic in Berlin who is downgraded to a bathroom attendant after being told he’s too old for any other job at the Hotel. The sadness he feels over the loss of his job and self-respect is insignificant compared with the shame and humiliation heaped upon him by his neighbors when they surveil the porter’s niece (Maly Delschaft), eavesdrop on her conversations, learn about the turnabout in his fortunes, and spread the word among the worker’s quarter that he’s been reduced to doing menial labor. The tables are turned again in a plot twist, a happy-ending narrative concession admitted as such in the film’s only inter-title. A chance meeting transforms the bathroom attendant into a millionaire, and he is embraced by the rich and famous who are charmed by newspaper accounts of his sudden rise to riches. While the screenplay doesn’t involve spying to inform the police, it clearly demonstrates the consequences of a citizenry amenable to mutual surveillance, and public accusatory behavior albeit here denouncing the loss of social standing rather than criminal activity. In addition, the sudden acceptance he receives from this previously scornful public after his unexpected windfall is reported in the newspapers suggests that Murnau is criticizing the public as fickle and easily manipulated by the press—perfect fodder for the police to enlist as observers and informants.
If ordinary citizens readily assume the responsibility of surveilling each other what happens if they take a step beyond observing or publicly accusing and assume the role of police by apprehending those accused? Some filmmakers used questions like this one to both criticize such behavior and construct narratives in a new type of crime picture set in the city streets of Berlin where the problems of modernity clashed with lives of everyday citizens. For example, director Joe May and screenwriters Hans Székely and Rolf E. Vanloo use public accusation and seizure to bring the main characters together in Asphalt (1929). After attractive grifter Elsa Kramer (Betty Amann, looking very Clara Bowish) charms her way out of a jeweler’s shop with a sizable stone hidden in her umbrella it is the crowds packing Berlin’s nighttime streets who respond to the jeweler’s cries of “stop thief!” rather than the police (who is busy directing traffic; a lone man in a sea of automobiles). The masses of people and commotion of Weimar Berlin not only provide Kramer with opportunities to commit her crimes, but also result in her capture due to a vigilant public ready to act. The angry citizens surround Kramer, pressing in on all sides until she is swallowed up by the masses and her protests are all but drowned by their accusations. Only then does traffic cop Holk (Albert Steinruck) take notice and intervene on her behalf. May shows us that the public and not the police discover and detain the suspect. However once the crowd has her surrounded and in its control May has them appear so agitated that we feel that they’re only moments away from doing something drastic and we're relieved when the authorities arrive in the form of Officer Holk to ensure that justice prevails. We know that she’s guilty of the accusations, but we're strangely reassured when the power over her fate transfers from an emotional, unpredictable mob to the rational investigating techniques of the state police (though the films plays with that notion later). May, Székely and Vanloo are critical of the public taking agency in surveilling fellow citizens in so far as the results of such surveillance can be dangerous when the public confuses its role as observers and informers with the role of the police as law enforcers.
Fritz Lang’s M (1931) is, perhaps, Weimar’s most often discussed critique of Germany’s publicized system of surveillance and denunciation. A serial murderer (Peter Lorre) is loose in Berlin and Lang shows us how public fear lets the accusations fly. Old friends accuse each other over dinner, a petty criminal is accosted by a violent crowd (until the police arrive a la Asphalt), people accuse anonymous strangers, deranged individuals even accuse themselves and try to turn themselves into the police. Still, the murderer evades detection. Lang adds another question to the issue: is voluntary fascism preferable to an ineffectual police force? A pack of known criminals organize a vigilante syndicate to keep Berlin under surveillance, ostensibly providing security but ultimately resulting in injustice because if the criminals assume the role of the police who will make sure that they operate within the law? In addition, the criminal syndicate’s motives are entirely self-serving because they want to get back to committing crimes against the people of Berlin themselves. Instead of turning the killer over to the authorities once they capture him, this pack of thieves, forgers, and cutthroats led by an accused murderer hold a kangaroo court (for their own amusement and satisfaction, like the crowds that gather to watch a lynching) and intend to execute him. As in all of the movies we’ve discussed, the authorities arrive at the very last moment (reminiscent of the arrival of the cavalry in a Hollywood western) and the killer is sentenced by the proper authorities after a trial. Lang’s final statement in the film however adds a new motivation for M. A grieving mother looks into the camera and remarks, “This won’t bring our children back. We must watch over our children better.” Lang appears to be suggesting that neither public surveillance nor trusting our security to any political group (in M the syndicate of criminals makes a fitting stand-in for the Nazis) will make us safe; our welfare and that of our children is ultimately our own personal responsibility—an acceptable alternative to the dangers of mutual surveillance as the twisted motives and actions of the syndicate illustrate.
In Fritz Lang Interviewed by William Friedkin (1974), Lang explained his intentions with M by comparing it to Fury (1936), a film he made in Hollywood about a man who barely escapes from a lynch mob: "[Lynching] is an evil, but I cannot change it," he said. "I can only point it out." Likewise Murnau, May, Lang and Weine couldn’t change the culture of mutual surveillance and denunciation that they saw spreading around them, but as filmmakers they could make their audiences aware of it.
1. For recent work on denunciation practices in pre-war Germany, see Sace Elder, "Murder, Denunciation and Criminal Policing in Weimar Berlin," Journal of Contemporary History 41.3 (2006). Elder argues that mutual surveillance began in the Weimar era and set the stage for a "culture of denunciation" that flourished in the Nazi and GDR periods; definition of denunciation quoted from Sheila Fitzpatrick and Robert Gellately, "Introduction to the Practices of Denunciation in Modern European History" in Fitzpatrick and Gellately (eds), Accusatory Practices: Denunciation in Modern European History, 1789–1989 (Chicago 1997): 21.
2. David A. Cook, A History of Narrative Film (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 93-94. Cook suggests that Fritz Lang, the initial choice for director, revised the original Caligari screenplay, at the request of producer Erich Pommer, adding the framing reality narrative to contrast the Expressionist look of the rest of the film. However, Lang’s name doesn’t appear in the film’s credits and Cook doesn't reveal his source for the information. Siegfried Kracauer argues that Weine added the framing device for commercial reasons against the wishes of Caligari's authors. See From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological Examination of The German Film (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1947), 66.