From Strange Bedfellows to Soulmates: Psychoanalysis as an Allegory of Weimar Cinema

Essay, 2005

12 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Content

1. Introduction
1.1 Psychoanalysis as an instrument of interpretation
1.2 Psychoanalysis as an allegory of Weimar Cinema
1.3 Psychoanalysis as a model of cinematic fiction

2. Overview
2.1. Main approaches to Weimar Cinema in critical theory
2.2. Position of psychoanalysis in context of the secondary literature
2.3. Explanation of psychoanalytic terminology

3. Body
3.1. Plot summary and psychoanalytic interpretation in the context of Krakauer’s History of the German film
3.2. Exploration of psychoanalysis as a model of cinematic representation with reference to Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography


Since the early modern period in intellectual history, there seems to be a concern with the application of the science of psychology to the study of culture. The screening of the movie Secrets of a Soul on the birthday of the founding father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud in Berlin demonstrated the initial point of convergence between one of the most important and influential psychological theories of the 20th century and film production.[1] Although Freud did not consider the cinematic medium as appropriate to fully explain the abstract concepts of psychoanalysis, which the film attempts by means of a case study concerning a patient’s treatment, there apparently occurred some sort of transference process between the analyst and the artists. Thus, by mutually reinforcing each other, both discourses gained legitimacy making it worthwhile to further examine this relationship.

G.W. Pabst’s 1926 film, Secrets of a Soul (Geheimnisse einer Seele), is one such encounter, a chapter in the still unwritten and untheorized metahistory of psychoanalysis and cinema.[2]

This paper aims to make a contribution to that metahistorical text, proposing a combination of abstract analytical thought and popular entertainment during the Weimar Cinema period. In agreement with the notion, that “the ready appeal of cinema as an analogy for mental processes brings about the danger of the loss of the specificity of psychoanalytic understanding”[3], I will not try to equate the two discourses, but rather follow two objectives: First, utilize psychoanalytic theory as an instrument for strategic interpretation of the story / plot of a particular film and second, attempt to crystallize out the way it corresponds with cinematic representation. In regards to the latter aspect I operate under the assumption, that the creative process of film making entails a big part of the unconscious and thus lends itself to psychoanalytic interpretation. Although in contrast to Secrets of a Soul it does not deal with the method of psychoanalysis directly, I chose the movie The Cabinet of Dr Caligari for this paper, because I suppose that it contains various elements of the conceptual framework of the theory which comes about in narrative and visual terms. Primarily leaning onto a core text in the history of German film, written by the Marxian representative Krakauer, I will thus treat the movie as an allegory of psychoanalysis in general and try to see to what extent it can be considered a reflection of the so called collective unconscious. Also, I will examine the idea of psychoanalysis as a model of cinematic fiction, particularly as it relates to the art form of expressionism and finally evaluate the value of the application to both.


As psychoanalytic theory is rather complex and went through several revisions by disciples of Freud, I will concentrate on a few main concepts that I will try to clarify in advance in order to base my interpretation on firm terminological grounds. First however, I will try to locate the position of psychoanalysis in the context of critical theory and thus provide an overview of popular analysis of Weimar Cinema in general.

A dominant approach in the secondary literature about Weimar Cinema is derived from the Frankfurt School, which includes both, Marxian and Freudian elements. It essentially postulates art as a sphere of resistance, due to its power of criticising reality. A particularly interesting view within this tradition is suggested by Goldmann, who argues that the creation of art is based upon trans-individual mental structures originating in the unconscious, which are transformed into a coherent form.[4] Another popular approach is contributed by the Lacanian school of thought, which establishes a relationship between the unconscious and a structural linguistic concept of language derived from Saussure’s classic notion of the signifier and can be extended to other art forms. Essential features are the imaginary and the symbolic. Whereas the approaches differ in regards to informing systems, they share the central psychoanalytic idea of the unconscious. Freud conceptualizes the unconscious and the interdependence of its elements with a tri part model of the psyche made up of the Id, the Ego and the Superego. The Id consists mainly of sexually based wishes and desires derived from the pleasure principle, whereas the Superego represents the moral instance censoring them. The Ego aims to balance out those opposite pressures, which occurs through a variety of so called defence mechanisms, such as denial, resistance, regression and projection among others. The first occurs through the rejection of a fact too uncomfortable to accept. The second is characterized by an opposition to change, the third refers to drifting back into an earlier developmental stage and the fourth refers to the attribution of one’s own thoughts and emotions onto others. The latter is most reminiscent of a specific stage, that is the showing of the final product during the filmmaking process, and regression finds an analogy in the state of mind of a movie goer. As opposed to a dualistic notion, the tri part model somewhat clarifies the fact, that particular content can change quite quickly between the conscious and unconscious and to different degrees. Thus, the unconscious refers to sort of an in between realm of fantasy and reality. It hides meaning in symbolic images that are revealed in dreams and art. Freud’s most famous manifesto The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900 elaborates in detail on the method of deciphering the unconscious. Basically, the Viennese psychiatrist distinguishes between manifest and latent content of dreams, which refer to the actual visual / sensory experiences and their potential for interpretation respectively. He further identifies several mechanisms to break down the process of transformation of an oppressed desire into a socially acceptable wish through dreaming. During the first phase of this process (primary elaboration), all aspects of a dream metamorphose into a symbol, the most famous probably being the phallus symbol. Symbolization can be based on the similarity of objects (metaphor), but may merely be a loose association (metonymy) as well. The second mechanism is dramatization, which refers to the translation of psychic content or its associations into an image or a sequence of images. The third mechanism is characterized by the substitution of an object of desire with another. In combination with all former mechanisms the phenomenon of layering of ideas occurs often, which allows for multiple, even contradictory meanings of a symbol. Consensually, this is referred to as condensation. During the following phase of the process comprised of these mechanisms (secondary elaboration), further transformation takes place through tying images and symbols together into a story, which may thoroughly disguise original wishes .[5]


[1] Compare to: Sanford Gifford: „Freud at the Movies, 1907 - 1925. From the Piazza Colonna and Hammerstein’s Roofgarden to Secrets of a Soul.” In: Celluloid Couches - Cinematic Clients. Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in the Movies. New York: State University of New York Press 2004, p. 33.

[2] Anne Friedberg: „An Unheimlich Maneuver between Psychoanalysis and the Cinema: Secrets of a Soul (1926).” In: The Films of G.W. Pabst. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press 1990, p. 41.

[3] Stephen Heath: “Cinema and Psychonalysis. Parallel Histories.” In: Endless Night. Cinema and Psychoanalysis. Parallel Histories. Los Angeles: University of California Press 1999, p. 25.

[4] Compare to: Peter Brooker et. al.: A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (5th ed.). London: Pearson Education Limited 2005, all chapters.

[5] Compare to: Henk de Berg: Freud’s Theory and its Use in Literary and Cultural Studies. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House 2003, chapter 2 - 5.

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From Strange Bedfellows to Soulmates: Psychoanalysis as an Allegory of Weimar Cinema
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Irene Fowlkes (Author), 2005, From Strange Bedfellows to Soulmates: Psychoanalysis as an Allegory of Weimar Cinema, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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