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Moving History: The Cinematic Regime of Historicity in Weimar Germany


This study shows how historical film confronted popular memory and the dominant sense of history, to deconstruct and supplant these modes, resulting in a media revolution for historical transmission and experience. With its inherent potential and oft-lamented drawbacks, I argue that film came to shape a primary regime of historicity, one that made history internationally shared, primarily imagistic rather than narrative, explicitly constructed and a sensory experience specifically for embodied viewers. In order to closely analyze this emergence of cinematic historicity I turn to symptomatic contemporary developments that expose the power of cinema on historical thought and writing. The project begins by tracing historical film's pedagogical inflection, first in its international context as a connective force for peace and understanding and then by focusing in on the potential of historical film in Weimar classroom instruction. Next, I detail the response and appropriation of cinematic possibilities for historians and the invasion of the popular form into the academy. After treating the international, pedagogical, and historiographical contexts, I argue for the corporeal experience of history on film as shaping the popular "sense" of the past and offering a qualitative gain in historical transmission.

The first chapter reveals the entanglement of historical films immediately following the Great War as transnational and interconnected products. The chapter historicizes Ernst Lubitsch's and Germany's entry into the international film market and the attendant politics of promoting world pedagogy through world history in the "universal language" of silent film. This sentiment is traced in the conception of borders, limits and expansion in both the formal construction of Lubitsch's history films, Passion (1919), Deception (1920) and The Loves of Pharaoh (1922), as well as the discourses surrounding them. The chapter intervenes in traditional accounts of this period that perpetuate a purely nationalist view of marketing spectacle and instead treats the transnational element of history films in form, content, and reception. This focus reveals Germany's cultural and economic connection,

understood as an alternative to the largely ineffective League of Nations.

The next chapter localizes the issues of historical film by surveying educational attempts to incorporate historical film in the official pedagogy of early Weimar. Focusing on previously untreated debates centered on the effect of the medium, this chapter uses the figure of youth from Benjamin's writings to consider an alternative mode of history film reception. This mode is tied to the ontological realism of the medium and is shown to eschew "historicism," while foregrounding the constructed and illusory nature of creating history out of the past.

The third chapter, "Clio in Crisis," starts from the address given at Ernst Troeltsch's funeral to explore the international hope for "new history" and the implications of the crisis of historicism. The chapter then treats filmic examples of thematizing historical visualization, before turning to the way cinema shaped historical writing and thought for historians. Walter Benjamin's conception of alternative historiography, armed with film's "dynamite," together with Siegfried Kracauer's thoughts on photographic media's "dynamizing" relation to history and memory provide examples of exploring the threat and promise of cinema in the popular presentation as well as the very writing of history. I argue that historical productions, both that of individual films as well as film-inspired thought and writing, came to register the crisis of historicism and help translate it into culturally consumed terms.

The final chapter begins with beheadings on film as a modern spectacle tied to grave sensory history--cinematically fragmenting the body as well as framing bodily experience for an audience. The chapter seeks to mitigate Kracauer's dismissal of Lubitsch's history films (in Caligari to Hitler) by using his more sensory-oriented observations in Theory of Film. The chapter shows how nineteenth-century historicism entailed "self-extinguishment" and thus the extraction of the sensing body in historiographical construction and reception. By using Vivian Sobchack's film phenomenology to read Passion, I argue that historical film returns the body to the historical process and that this important cultural shift escapes the lens of traditional historiography, but captures the cinematic regime of historicity.

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