Divided screen : the doppelgänger in German silent film
The proliferation of the doppelgänger theme in so many films of Wilhemine and Weimar Germany raises the question of its historical significance, in particular during Germany’s “crisis of classical modernity”. While previous studies have addressed the double from a narrative perspective, focusing on its psychological significations as divided self, this thesis instead considers the theme from a structural and historical perspective: how, as a technical reproduction of the human body that is ontologically double, at once real and unreal, it serves as a site for reflection on the visual experience of modernity and on the medium of cinema. The thesis begins by considering the relationship between the theme of the double, born circa 1800, and the burgeoning visual regimes of modernity. Important aspects of this relationship are the abstraction of representation from stable referents in the aftermath of Kantian thought, the empirical study of the observing subject, and the development of new technologies of recording and projection. Nineteenth-century technologies of optical illusion, such as the phantasmagoria and lifelike automata, as well as the itinerant showmen who displayed them, gave rise to doubles of the human body with uncanny effects of ontological uncertainty. These not only influenced the doppelgänger stories of German Romanticism and after, but also were ancestors of cinema’s doubles and their showmen. This study considers the “cinematic” themes of a set of stories and films of the double, including repeatedly performed scenarios of exhibition and voyeurism, visual pleasure and anxiety, foregroundings of the narration, and allusions to the history of cinema and media technologies. The central chapters of the thesis offer readings of five classics of German film: The Student of Prague (1913), The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920), Waxworks (1924), and Metropolis (1926). Addressing the double as a reflexive theme of optical uncertainty, these readings focus on how moments of optical distress are depicted and how film language is used to construct a cinematic uncanny: an ontological problem arising from the ambivalent character of visual experience that affects the narrative and film form, characters and spectator alike. This perspective sheds light on the historical significance of the double theme, revealing its close relationship with the problematic status of vision and the observing subject in modernity, and with a special case of modern visual experience, the technological medium of cinema.