German Cinematic Expressionism in Light of
Jungian and Post-Jungian Approaches
University of Regina (Canada)
“True symbolism occurs where the particular represents the more
general […] as living, momentary revelation of the unfathomable.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1949, no. 314.
Abstract. Prerogative of what Jung calls visionary art, the aesthetics of
German Expressionist cinema is “primarily expressive of the collective
unconscious,” and – unlike the psychological art, whose goal is “to express
the collective consciousness of a society” – they have succeeded not only to
“compensate their culture for its biases” by bringing “to the consciousness
what is ignored or repressed,” but also to “predict something of the future
direction of a culture” (Rowland 2008, italics in the original, 189–90). After
a theoretical introduction, the article develops this idea through the example
of three visionary works: Arthur Robison’s Warning Shadows (Schatten,
1923), Fritz Lang’s The Weary Death aka Destiny (Der müde Tod, 1921), and
Paul Leni’s Waxworks (Wachsgurenkabinett, 1924).
Keywords: Symbolism, Expressionism, semiotic vs. symbolic approach,
psychological vs. visionary art, shadow, animus/anima, Faust-
This essay argues that the longevity of German Expressionist cinema as a unique
expression of the complex historical, cultural, and psychological environment of
the Weimar republic (1918–1933), is above all predicated on its sophisticated
cinematic language, dened as “symbolic expression” of “illogical and irrational
factors, transcending our omprehension,” which “cannot be dealt with rationally”
(Jung qtd. in Smythe 2012, 151). Indeed, as has been noted (Guffey 2016), the
most popular medium of the day invariably displays afnity to irrational and
often times tabooed factors, related to sex and madness, but above all – to death
and the occult. German lmmakers were among the rsts to see “the possibilities
of lm […] as a method of transmitting” spiritual knowledge, marginalized by
ActA Univ. SApientiAe, Film And mediA StUdieS, 16 (2019) 35–58
36 Christina Stojanova
modernity, and simply moved in to occupy the niche (Guffey 2016, 171). And
while The Student of Prague (Der Student von Prag, Paul Wegener and Stellan
Rye, 1913) and The Golem (Der Golem, Henrik Galeen and Paul Wegener, 1915)
appeared well before the ofcially endorsed beginnings of German cinematic
Expressionism, their remakes – by the same crew and under the same titles –
went to become staples of its canon.
According to Siegfried Kracauer’s book From Caligari To Hitler: A Psychological
History of the German Film, published in 1947, these early works “introduced to
the screen the theme that was to become an obsession of the German Cinema: a
deep and fearful concern with the foundations of the self,” and the place of that
self within the increasingly destabilized world of Wilhelmine Germany (1974,
30). Lotte Eisner, in her 1952 book, The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the
German Cinema and the Inuence of Max Reinhardt, alludes also strongly to
the metaphysical tendencies of what came to be known as German Cinematic
Expressionism, despite the protests of scholars who insist that Weimar cinema
(1918–1933) is much more than the two dozen or so Expressionist lms. But even
Thomas Elsaesser, whose thorough study Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s
Historical Imaginary (2000) wraps up decades of research into the subject, admits
that, despite their diversity, “in retrospect, a unity imposes itself on these lms,
their subject and stories” (2000, 3). “It seems,” he goes on to say, “the lms usually
indexed as Weimar Cinema, have one thing in common – they are invariably
constructed as picture puzzles, which consistently, if not systematically refuse
to be tied down to a single meaning” (2000, 3). And, one feels tempted to add,
open themselves most readily – and consistently, if not systematically – to
interpretation in light of concepts borrowed from clinical psychology. Which
is not surprising since, as Elsaesser writes, the most “signicant utterances” of
that time came from “the same three nineteenth-century thinkers: Nietzsche’s
genealogy of morals, Marx’s notion of ideology, and Freud’s concept of the
unconscious” (2000, 152).
Indeed, the “deep and fearful concern with the foundations of the self” and
the ensuing anxieties, could – and have – been attributed by Marxist scholars
to the consequences of the humiliating post-war Weimar arrangements, which
intensied the extant class struggle.1 These deep-seated psychological concerns
and social anxieties could also be seen as having triggered what Friedrich
1 See Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell for a balanced review of German Expressionism
and its social and political background (2003, 101–117). On the other hand, Marxist-based
approaches to Weimar culture focus predominantly on the enormous inuence of the Soviet
avant-garde cinema of Eisenstein, Vertov, and Pudovkin (Braskén, 2014).
37German Cinematic Expressionism in Light of Jungian...
Nietzsche describes as the “beginnings of the slave revolt in morality” and
“the ressentiment of those beings who, denied the proper response of action,
compensate for it only with imaginary revenge” (2006, 20, see also Sipiora 2016).
And, as Kracauer’s study and its followers demonstrate, the reection of these
concerns and anxieties on the Weimar screen inevitably made psychoanalysis
a preferred approach for analysing German Expressionist cinema. All the more
that the psychoanalytical utterances of Sigmund Freud, based on the symbolism
of dreams, were already entering the mainstream intellectual discourse, thus
undoubtedly inuencing the lmmakers.
Symbolism and Expressionism
German Expressionist cinema – along with the visual arts, music, theatre, and
literature – obviously plays a signicant role in the imaginary revenge of the
Expressionist Weltanschauung against capitalist modernity and Enlightenment
rationalism, considered to be the major causes behind the slaughter at the fronts of
WWI, and of the exacerbated exploitation of the masses that followed. However, the
metaphysical shift in German cinema, mentioned above, is prompted not so much
by the creative ressentiment and the socially critical impetus of the Expressionist
movement, but by the indignation – shared by German Romanticism and the
decadent French Symbolism – with the profanation and destruction, brought
on by the Industrial Revolution, of the “‘noble’, ‘aristocratic’, ‘spiritually high-
minded’” values (Nietzsche 2006, 13). German cinematic Expressionism came to
be associated with the mysticism and melancholy of late German Romanticism –
usually projected on Medieval or Classical past, and with the Symbolist trend in
paintings which – with its ancient ruins, majestic twilight landscapes, vertically
elongated Gothic shapes, and almost pathological fascination with death and
afterlife – represented a passionate escapist reaction to realism and naturalism of
the 19th-century literature, art, and philosophy.
Moreover, the triumph of Eros over Logos,2 associated initially with Symbolism,
acquired an increasingly ideological meaning after WWI with inward-looking
movements like Expressionism, and certainly with Surrealism, both positioning
themselves rmly against the rational and optimistic extroversion of Futurism and
Constructivism which served, albeit briey, as inspiration to ideologically opposite
2 According to Rowland, “Eros stands for psychic capacity of relatedness and feeling, while Logos
– for spiritual meaning and reason.” While she accepts these concepts, she critiques Jung’s
“alignment” of Eros with the feminine, and Logos with the masculine, as “contemporary Jungian
analytic practice treats Eros and Logos as equally available to both genders” (2008, 185–6).
38 Christina Stojanova
but equally murderous regimes – Fascism and Communism – whose ofcial
gurative artistry was to eradicate all symbolism and abstraction in the 1930s.
The Semiotic and the Symbolic
It is worth mentioning that post-WWI philosophical thought also privileged the
uidity of symbols over the concreteness of words because of their inability, as
Ludwig Wittgenstein writes,3 to express imponderable values like “religion, the
meaning of life, logic and philosophy” (Monk 2005, 17–21). Yet it is the major
developments in analytical psychology – more specically the publication
in 1912 of the rst version of Symbols of Transformation (revised in 1952 as
Psychology of the Unconscious) by the Swiss clinical psychologist Carl Gustav
Jung – which brought to the fore the importance of symbols for the human
psyche. In addition to making public his break with Freud by openly declaring a
radically different stand on the contentious issues of the collective unconscious4
and the nature of the libido,5 it established a different way of handling symbols.
Rather than explaining them away, as Freud proposed in his Interpretation
of Dreams (1899), Jung suggested amplifying them. Thus amplication was
gradually accepted as “a general comparative strategy for exploring symbolic
meaning” of ‘primordial images’ – later called archetypes6 – from the collective
unconscious (Smythe 2012, 155).
Fittingly, Jungian scholar William Smythe relates amplication to “‘discovery
procedure’ rather than to method of verication,” since its goal is “to exemplify,
elaborate and embellish meaning without ever exhausting or explaining it” (2012,
154). Such a “distinction between the conceptual” – or the semiotic – and “the
3 In Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Ludwig Wittgenstein afrms that “a picture is a model of
reality” (Proposition 2.12) since “what a picture represents is its sense” (Proposition 2.221), yet
is quick to warn us that “it cannot be discovered from the picture alone whether it [that is, the
sense of reality] is true or false” (Proposition 2.224) (2015, 16–18). Therefore his last Proposition,
no. 7, proclaiming that “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” could be read,
among other things, as a critique of the complexity of philosophical conceptualization but also
as a nod to the domain of the non-conceptual, that is, the symbolic (2015, 109).
4 In later writings Jung uses the term objective psyche.
5 While Freud denes the libido as predominantly sexual in nature, Jung insists that the libido is
the psychic energy in general, and therefore of quantitative, not qualitative nature.
6 According to Smythe, “Jung used the term archetype to refer to basic patterns or forms of
meaning that are widely distributed across cultures and reect perennial, existential concerns
of human life everywhere […]. In his nal, denitive reformulation of the theory of archetypes,
Jung distinguished archetypal expressions, in the form of personal images and cultural symbols,
from the archetype as such, which he conceived as ‘irrepresentable’ and gener ally non-amenable
to conceptual articulation or explicit representation” (2012, 152–53).
39German Cinematic Expressionism in Light of Jungian...
non-conceptual” – or the symbolic – could be compared to “the contrast between
the denotative function of conceptual language and the expressive function of
symbols” (Smythe 2012, 154). In addition to “the individual productions of
patients in psychotherapy,” amplication is thus successfully applied “across
a wide range of diverse contexts,” including “cultural products of religious and
mythological traditions” (Smythe 2012, 154), and certainly – in literary and
art criticism (see Susan Rowland 2010, 2013, and 2018). As Post-Jungian lm
scholar Don Fredericksen remarks, amplication is the only possible way of
grasping “the extraordinary fascination,” experienced when symbols from the
objective psyche (or the collective unconscious) captured on screen, “transcend
the personal association” of the conscious mind (2001, 29).
In his seminal article “Jung/sign/symbol/lm” Fredericksen – basing his
argument on Jung’s understanding of sign and symbol – emphasizes amplication
as an indispensable tool for the symbolic approach to lm. In his view, the extant
semiotic approaches, which he denes as brought on by the “rationalistic hubris”
– Christian Metz’s theory of the Imaginary Signier, Freud- and Lacan-inspired
theory, and Marxism – are aimed at explaining rationally every symbol, and
turning it into sign once and for all (2001, 28). He then contrasts Freudian semiotics
and Jungian symbolism on the basis of their approach to “the incest imagery” in
the Oedipus complex. While Freud found this imagery “annoyingly persistent”
even after the “concretistic, allegedly semiotic meaning was made time and again
conscious to the patient” (Fredericksen 2001, 19), Jung saw “what appeared
to Freud as mere regression into the infantile […] as a necessary step into the
‘maternal depths’ for spiritual unfoldment and psychic wholeness” (Fredericksen
2001, 19). In other words, Freud aimed at explaining away psychic material in
rational terms and Jung encouraged amplication of its symbolism. Fredericksen
concludes that “while the majority of lms are predominantly semiotic in
character […] and [represent] manifestations of social codes” (Fredericksen 2001,
27), a number of avant-garde, experimental works are construed like “symbolic
products of the psyche,” which would “lack in meaning were not a symbolic
one conceded to them” (Jung qtd. in Fredericksen 2001, 27). Fredericksen’s
approach to the semiotic and the symbolic follows closely Jung’s understanding of
“psychological” or “introvert” and “visionary” or “extrovert” art.7 Thus in Jung’s
view, Part I of Faust is an example of psychological or introverted art, which yields
7 What is meant by introvert and extrovert here is that psychological art is self-sufcient,
enclosed within itself, while the visionary is open, and entirely dependent on the recipient for
40 Christina Stojanova
to Fredericksen’s semiotic approach, since it remains within the boundaries of the
human experiences and human consciousness. Unless, of course “we expect [to
be explained] why Faust fell in love with Gretchen, or why she was driven to
murder her child” (Jung 1989b, vol. 15, 88–89). In Part II, however, “the material
for artistic expression is no longer familiar,” it is “something strange that derives
its expression from the hinterland of man’s mind, as if it had emerged from the
abyss of pre-human ages, or from a superhuman world of contrasting light and
darkness, […] a primordial experience which surpasses man’s understanding and
to which in his weakness he may easily succumb” (Jung 1989b, vol. 15, 90).
The Psychological Cinema of Robert Wiene
In her succinct way, post-Jungian scholar Susan Rowland claries further the
above division by suggesting that “psychological art expresses mainly the
collective consciousness of a society,” and that “the artist has already done most
of the psychic work for the audience” (2008, 187–8). With this in mind, it is easy
to see why Robert Wiene stands out among the few Expressionist directors of
psychological cinema, who seek to “express what the collective is consciously
debating or concerned about,” and ensure that a rational explanation of the
numerous mysterious occurrences in their lms is obtained (Rowland 2008, 88).
Thus the viewer – as Tzvetan Todorov has it in his discussion of the fantastic
– after some “hesitation between the natural and the unnatural explanation of
the events described,” is steered towards the conclusion that “the laws of reality
remain intact,” and “the work belongs to the uncanny” (Todorov 1975, 41). In
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920) for example, the
protagonist, Frank tells a strange story about the head doctor of a local mental
hospital, who in some mysterious ways has adopted the personality of the medieval
necromancer Caligari, and is committing a series of murders by the hand of
Cesare, a malleable somnambulist in his care. Until the very end of the lm Wiene
masterfully coaxes viewers’ hesitation as to whether Frank’s story belongs to the
realm of the unexplained and the “marvelous,” where “new laws of nature must be
entertained to account for the phenomena,” or is a case of psychotic transference
where patients project – or unconsciously transmit phantasmagoric desires and
aggressive impulses – on their doctor (Todorov 1975, 41). The hesitation reaches
its climax in the penultimate scene, where Frank confronts the head doctor
publicly: “you think I am insane? It is the director who is insane! He is Caligari,
Caligari, Caligari.” Weine – in tune with Freud’s musings about transference being
41German Cinematic Expressionism in Light of Jungian...
sometimes “the best tool” in psychiatric treatment, but also “its greatest threat”
(Demir) – resolves the hesitation in favour of the “natural laws of reality.” And lets
the doctor utter the nal words: “at last I understand his delusion. He thinks I am
that mystic Caligari, now I know exactly how to cure him.” [Fig. 1.]
For The Hands of Orlac (Orlacs Hande, 1924), Wiene adapts the eponymous
novel by Maurice Renard, the forerunner of the dystopian bio-punk subgenre.
And makes the story about the transplantation of a murderer’s hands onto the
talented pianist Orlac, who has just lost his in a horric railway accident, as self-
explanatory and as rationally explicit as possible. He excelled in this endeavour
to such an extent that, as an excellent blog on silent cinema afrms, “the Interior
Ministry of Saxony tried, without success, to have the lm prohibited” for giving
“too detailed information on the working methods of the police [which they
believed] could give criminals ideas to commit a crime without being caught” (A
Cinema History). Yet again, the nocturnal scene of the train crash, and especially
the scenes where Orlac is seized by terror, imagining the acts his new hands
might be capable of, are designed with stunning Expressionist elegance, both
uncannily macabre and out-worldly marvellous.
Wiene’s Raskolnikov (Raskolnikow, 1923), along with Friedrich Wilhelm
Murnau’s Tartutfe (Tartüff, 1925) and Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Dr.
Mabuse, der Spieler, 1922), also belong to this category as their psychological
conspicuousness stems from their famous critical-realist literary prototypes.
And while the unusual camera angles, chiaroscuro lighting, and the generally
gloomy nocturnal atmosphere – or their Stimmung as Lotte Eisner would have it
– are unquestionably Expressionist, they are hardly original. Or, as Dr. Mabuse’s
somewhat self-derogatory comment sums it up: “Expressionism is mere pastime
... but why not? Everything today is pastime!” (A Cinema History).
Shadows, The Weary Death, and Waxworks as
According to Rowland, “visionary art is primarily expressive of the collective
unconscious. As such it compensates the culture for its biases, brings to the
consciousness what is ignored or repressed, and may predict something of the
future direction of a culture” (italics in the original, 2008, 189–90). In any case,
neither ego, nor consciousness cannot be “excluded from a work of art, so nothing is
hundred percent of the unconscious,” therefore “visionary and psychological [art]
are linked categories pushed apart to polar extremes, not wholly different realms”
42 Christina Stojanova
(Rowland 2008, 190). Unlike the psychological works, discussed above, the three
visionary works under scrutiny here have remained on the margins of most seminal
writings on German Expressionism, since semiotic approaches fail to capture their
symbolic energy – always already open to any number of meanings conceded to
them – generated by the manifestation of the archetypes at their core. Thus Arthur
Robison’s Warning Shadows (Schatten, 1923), Fritz Lang’s The Weary Death aka
Destiny (Der müde Tod, 1921), and Paul Leni’s Waxworks (Wachsgurenkabinett,
1924) are amplied in terms of the shadow, the anima, and the animus, which
also happen to be the archetypes “most clearly characterized from empirical point
of view,” because of their “most frequent and most disturbing inuence on the
ego” (Jung 1968, vol. 9ii, 8). To quote Jung again, their amplication elucidates the
fascination with “something strange that derives […] from the hinterland of the
mind”– that is, from the collective unconscious, and therefore yields “new laws of
nature,” coming from the “realm of the fantastic marvelous” as Torodov suggests.
Warning Shadows (subtitled A Nocturnal Hallucination) is a lesser known, but
very original lm which, as its title implies, creates a riddle of shadow symbolism,
which works on semantic, religious, mythological, and archetypal level. And to
reduce its meaning to any of those aspects would result in “impoverishment of
the emotive experience, of its imaginal and affective mass” (Mario Trevi qtd. in
Connolly 2008, 129). The lm is above all an exquisite aesthetic rendition of the
art of shadows, deployed by Robison as visions, emergent “from a superhuman
world of contrasting light and darkness,” but also as extravagant commentaries of
the unfolding events in a lm without a single intertitle.
Shadows features a group of small town aristocrats, gathered for a lavish dinner
party at the house of a rich and jealous husband who, unbeknownst to them, has
set up an experiment to test his beautiful wife’s delity. While prying on her, the
host is increasingly tormented by the deceptive shadows on curtains and walls,
which transform the guests’ courting gestures into actual intimacies.
At this point, the shadows – along with the forceful chiaroscuro effect of the
ubiquitous low-key lighting – are playful, even meta-cinematic comments on
the shadows as a staple aesthetic trope of German Expressionism. [Fig. 2.] They
represent “a pregnant metaphor that translates […] the everyday experience” into
“knowledge that we have a ‘twilight zone’, an obscure part of ourselves in which
many presences reveal themselves” (Connolly 2008, 129).
As fate would have it, however, the host’s sadomasochistic designs are
frustrated by a travelling Illusionist who is eventually allowed to present a Chinese
shadow-play to the party. The man swiftly grasps the situation, and aggravates
43German Cinematic Expressionism in Light of Jungian...
deliberately the host’s obsession by placing a lamp behind his dancing wife thus
revealing her body under the dress. Prompted by the menacing silhouettes on
walls and surfaces, the mood becomes foreboding, preparing the viewer for the
most intense part of the lm, where the symbolic – archetypal – meaning of the
shadow is homologised to that of evil.
Once everyone is seated at the table, facing a screen, the Illusionist begins
his hypnotising screening of a shadow-play about a Chinese Emperor, his
unfaithful wife and her lover, whose allegorical implications are as essential to
the personages as they are to the viewers. [Fig. 3.] Half way through the show,
however, when the Emperor is about to behead the lover and punish the wife, the
Illusionist makes the shadows of everyone at the table disappear, and a dissolve
transition shows them sitting at the other side of the table.
Indeed, the shadow aunts a typical archetypal duality – of life, as “the bond
that ties us to the earth” – but also of “the black ghost that emanates from us,
revealing the death within us” (G. Meyrink qtd. in Huckvale 2018, 52). In addition
to being “the most accessible” archetype, and “the easiest to experience” (1968,
vol. 9ii, 8), Jung understands the shadow as potentially both positive and negative
due to its capacity to challenge “the whole ego-personality” (qtd. in Sharp
1991). The enormous psychological and moral difculty in coming to conscious
terms with one’s shadow explains its tendency to project itself on others, which
paradoxically remains the only empirical way of exploring it. Thus the shadow-
selves of Robison’s personages – their murderous desires, vulgar urges, and morally
inferior drives – are acted out on the screen before their minds’ eye. As a result, the
wife’s intensifying irtatiousness, the growing boldness of the lascivious guests,
and especially that of the most handsome one, called the Lover, play in the hands
of the crafty husband, who ultimately is seen as forcing the guests to stab his
fettered wife to death and then challenging them to a deadly sword-ght.
At this crucial moment of the illusionary tale, the shadow-player, after having
restored their shadows, wakes up the party. In this manner, Robison captures the
shadow transition as an instrument of death and evil, to a nurturing force, which
gives “corporeality and depth to the human body” (Connolly 2008, 129). Hosts
and guests thus nd themselves at the table in the position they were before the
Illusionist mesmerized them, watching the end of the shadow-play, where the
Emperor forgives his wife, they kiss, and even the miraculously resurrected lover
leaves unharmed. Forewarned by the vision of the tragedy that was awaiting
them, the guests hastily bid their good-byes, husband and wife embrace, and the
mysterious shadow-player leaves the courtyard of the castle, riding a pig.
44 Christina Stojanova
In his comments on Warning Shadows, Kracauer writes that Robison’s lm, along
with an episode from the second Wegener’s Golem (1920) – where Rabbi Loew’s
mythical Golem, “by means of magic,” makes the “panic-stricken Emperor” rescind
his orders for evicting the Jews and stems the ensuing destruction – were the only
cinematic instances at that time where reason and forgiveness prevailed (1974,
123–4). Yet the engagement of German Expressionist cinema with irrational and
dark sides of the human psyche was a worthy, albeit short-lived attempt to capture
on screen the propensity of neglected shadow contents to break out in neurosis
and violence on individual and mass scale, and even coalesce as autonomous
entities. It is enough to evoke the deadly outbreak of dark drives and desires in
Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s The Treasure (Der Schatz, 1923), in Fritz Wendhausen’s The
Stone Rider (Der steinerne Reiter, 1923) and the advent of Nosferatu in the small
German town of Wisborg. The eponymous vampire from Murnau’s 1922 classic,
hailing from the Balkans – widely perceived obscure and therefore dangerous – is
an exquisitely autonomous manifestation of shadow contents of xenophobia and
bigotry, repressed in the personal and collective unconscious.
Writing with the devastating outcomes of WWII in mind, Jung sums up the
dangers of identifying entirely with one’s rational mind (or ego personality).
Such one-sidedness, he warns, invariably leads to a Dr. Jekyll–Mr. Hyde kind of
split on individual level, and to a Cold War standoff – on a political-economic
and ideological one (1955, 1–94). He advises that instead of trying to “convince
ourselves and the world that it is only they (i.e. our opponents) who are wrong
[…], it would be much more to the point to make a serious attempt to recognise
our own shadow and its nefarious doings” (1955, 73). Then again, the personal
shadow has long been considered a “symbol of the soul,” and it is through its
recognition that the ego-personality becomes aware of the animus8 and the
anima,9 the unconscious male aspect in a woman, and the female aspect of a man
(Connolly 2008, 129). Yet, as Rowland warns, neither the anima, nor the animus
“lock Jungian theory into perpetual gender opposition,” since the “archetypes
8 The inner masculine side of a woman, like the anima in a man, the animus is both a personal
complex, an archetypal image, and a compensating masculine element in woman, providing
her unconscious, so to speak, with a masculine imprint, therefore “I have called the projection-
making factor in women the animus, which means mind or spirit. The animus corresponds to the
paternal Logos just as the anima corresponds to the maternal Eros” (Jung qtd. in Sharp 1991).
9 Called by Jung the “archetype of life itself” and the “inner feminine side of a man,” the anima
is both a personal complex and an archetypal image of woman in the male psyche. “It is an
unconscious factor […], responsible for the mechanism of projection. Initially identied with
the personal mother, the anima is later experienced not only in other women but as a pervasive
and creative inuence in a man’s life” (qtd. in Sharp, 1991).
45German Cinematic Expressionism in Light of Jungian...
of the unconscious are androgynous, and therefore masculinity as well as
femininity,” are among the “series of ‘otherness’ for the psyche” of a man or a
woman (2008, 184).
According to Jung, individuation, or psychological maturity – that is, the
actualizing of the archetype of the self by freeing it from “the false wrappings
of the ego-persona and of the suggestive power of primordial images” and their
projections – is impossible without the awareness of the internal other, or of the
animus/anima forces of the unconscious (Jung qtd. in Sharp 1991). For, as Jung
suggests, if the “encounter with the shadow is the ‘apprentice-piece’” in a person’s
development, then “the reconciliation with their anima – and, for that matter,
with their animus, would be their ‘master-piece’” (Jung qtd. in Sharp 1991).
It is therefore intriguing to look at Lang’s The Weary Death, known also as
Destiny, and Leni’s Waxworks not only as doppelgangers in structural sense, but
also in psychological, as metaphorical expressions of the protagonists’ quests
for individuation with the help of their animus and anima, respectively. Both
works represent aesthetically accomplished musings on death and love, set
in different historical times in far-ung corners of the Earth, and played out
in various genre modes, ranging from tragic and melancholy, to suspenseful,
ironic, and even comedic.
Considered the rst major work of Lang’s oeuvre, Destiny features a grief-
stricken Young Woman who, after losing her beloved, pleads to Death –
personied by a sombrely handsome man – to let her have him back, and is given
three chances to succeed if an avatar of hers saves the life of her beloved in one of
the Stories of Light. Similarly, the protagonist in Waxworks, a poor Poet – asked
by the proprietor of a fairground wax-museum and his daughter Eva to write tales
about famous historical gures – imagines his newly-found love for Eva put to
the test in three segments, animated by the famous personages and their times.
The bizarre locations in both lms were obviously chosen with their mystical
potential in mind, hence the Middle Eastern cityscapes [Figs. 4–5], the snowy
vistas of Medieval Russia or the bridges of Venice and the jungles of China, with
their oneiric atmosphere, point to the archetypal nature of the protagonists’
experiences. Moreover, despite of their ostensible geographical and historical
scope, these two lms – “in diametrical opposition to nineteenth-century
historicism” – bring to bear “a visual poetics of parallelism and homology,
emphasizing trans-historical afnities and commonalities rather than distinct
inner principles” (Baer 2015, 146). Indeed, the deployment of oddly shaped
edices and visual patterns underscores the metaphorical-mythological nature
46 Christina Stojanova
of the narratives, making these lms representative pieces of visionary cinematic
Expressionism, whose ultimate goal is just that – to express, “to show, or
metaphorically exemplify” archetypes, “rather than to explicitly describe and
conceptualise [their] meaning” (Smythe 2012, 154).
The quest of the Young Woman through time and space could therefore be
amplied as a movement towards restoring “the lost mediation between her
conscious and unconscious” mind, severed with the untimely passing of her
male other, the animus. Each lm segment hence corresponds roughly to one
of “the four stages of animus development and the philosophical or religious
ideas” associated with it, and to “the attitude resulting” thereof (Jung qtd. in
Sharp 1991). Like Perceval, in her naïveté the Young Woman has stumbled upon
the Grail of love unconsciously, lost it, and then – after an emotionally and
spiritually excruciating quest – nds it again. But not before her unconscious
self-sacricial impulses transcend the ego-desires, and become a consciously
seless expression of her individuation.
In the rst segment, the Young Woman’s avatar is Princess Zobeide, the sister of
the Calif in an imaginary Middle-Eastern City of the Faithful. She is passionately
in love with the adventurous, trigger happy Frank,10 a Christian, who is the rst
incarnation of the lost beloved. The sexually and religiously transgressive nature
of their attraction is underscored by the time and place of their secret meeting
– during the holy month of Ramadan, at the central Mosque. The settings and
the mise-en-scène, especially the ritual dance of the ascetic Dervishes – staged
realistically, but lit and shot in expressionist manner – enhance the exotic-
erotic charge of the story. As is to be expected, their forbidden love is crushed
by Zobeide’s mighty brother, and Frank is buried alive by the Calif’s gardener El
Mot, who is actually Death.
In the second segment – the least visually inventive and, because of its
melodramatic narrative and stock characters, the most clichéd – the projection
of the Young Woman’s animus is no longer “embodiment of physical power”
and sexual prowess, but inspires “desires for independence” in the noble Monna
Fiametta, her new avatar (Jung qtd. in Sharp 1991). Unfortunately, the object of
this desire is the characterless Giovan Francesco – the second reincarnation of
the lost beloved – whose greatest virtue is his youth and absolute dedication to
Monna. And although the animus here motivates her “initiative and capacity for
planned action,” the Young Woman fails again to take into account the power
of the other man who wants to possess her (Jung qtd. in Sharp 1991). Taking
10 Frank could be understood as a personal, but was also a generic name for a European Christian.
47German Cinematic Expressionism in Light of Jungian...
advantage of the wild Venice Carnival, her cunning older suitor arranges that
Giovan Francesco is killed instead of him, and with the poisoned knife, yielded
by Monna Fiametta’s loyal servant, who is actually Death.
The third, Chinese segment, is the best crafted one, boldly juxtaposing realist
shots with Expressionist interiors and lighting. [Fig. 6.] Fittingly, its overall ironic
mode and actors’ self-reexivity echoes the growing independence of the Young
Woman, now on her way of mastering both her conscious and unconscious mind.
In this third stage, the animus is “often personied as a professor or clergyman,”
the archetypal wise old man, a role fullled here by the old magician A Hi, whose
ingenious disciple her avatar Tiao Tsien is (Jung qtd. in Sharp 1991). As A Hi’s
trusted assistant, Tiao Tsien is poised to surpass him, which she eventually does
by turning the old man into an ugly cactus. The role of her beloved, however, is
reduced to that of an erotic playmate, an object of desire whose only dramatic
function is to advance the plot. And when the greedy Emperor demands that A Hi
gives him Tiao Tsien as a birthday gift – along with the ying carpet, the winged
horse, and the miniature army – she ees with her beloved Liang. What follows
is a sequence of magic tricks – performed by Tiao Tsien to frustrate the pursuers
– whose cinematographic inventiveness has beautifully survived the passage of
time. Yet despite of camouaging Liang as a jungle tiger, he is pierced through
the heart by Death – who appears here as the Emperor’s best archer – while Tiao
Tsien, disguised as a Buddhist statue, sheds stone tears.
The desperate Young Woman then nds herself back with Death who,
in this fourth and nal stage, epitomizes her animus as “the incarnation of
spiritual meaning,” a “helpful guide,” the one who mediates between life and
death, reality and unreality, consciousness and the unconscious, and plays an
indispensable role in her individuation (Jung qtd. in Sharp 1991). Moved by her
valiant selessness, Death gives the Young Woman yet another chance to save
her beloved if she were to convince someone to exchange their life for his. After
a frantic search, the woman gets such a chance when she is about to leave a
newborn baby perish in a re, but decides against it. By accepting to take the
saved baby to his mother, Death endorses this act of seless appreciation for the
“values of the collective,” considered supreme manifestation of an individuated
psyche and, as a reward, lets the Young Woman join her beloved in his realm
(Sharp, 1991). [Fig. 7.]
Indeed, after Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God at the end of the 19th
century, death has arguably remained the last metaphysical entity, whose numinous
appeal is still felt in art, philosophy, and certainly in the media. Yet death as an
48 Christina Stojanova
archetype enjoyed a singular status in German Romanticism and Symbolism, and
in its n-de-siècle culture, inuenced by morbid Gothic mysticism. And certainly
in cinematic Expressionism, whose engagement with death in its various symbolic
and narrative hypostases intuited an ominous constellation of a death-wish in
the collective unconscious.11 This serendipitously prophetic insight throws light
on the enduring fascination with Death in Destiny, resuscitated more than three
decades later by the equally mesmerizing gure of the chess-playing Death in The
Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, Ingmar Bergman, 1957).
In addition to anima and death, Lang’s lm engages with other archetypes, three
of which are directly related to the discussion at hand – that of the quaternity,
of the senex and the puer aeternus. The senex or old man, is metaphorically
exemplied by Zobeide’s Brother, Monna Fiametta’s suitor, and the Emperor of
China, while the puer aeternus, or the eternal boy, is manifested in the avatars
of the Young Woman’s beloved. Being each other’s shadow, the “disciplined,
controlled, responsible, rational, and ordered senex” is “associated with the god
Apollo,” while the puer is “related to Dionysus-unbounded instinct, disorder,
intoxication, whimsy” (Sharp 1991). The senex is also counterpoised by the
archetype of the wise old man, who in the lm is embodied, albeit ironically, by
A Hi, and of course, by Death.
The inevitable nitude of the Young Woman’s decision is supported by the
archetype of quaternity, which, according to Jung, “points to the universal idea
of wholeness” and is manifested in the four-fold structure of the lm (qtd. in
Sharp 1991). Thus “the cross, formed by the points of the quaternity” could
be interpreted as a symbol of moral imperative – that is, to bear her cross by
obeying to patriarchy or the Law of the Father (as Lacan has it), symbolized by
rigidied, controlling and blocking older males. Or spend her life saving, in a
literal and gurative sense, her beloved puer – or follow Death, the only wise
and compassionate male presence in the lm (Jung qtd. in Sharp 1991). This
Jungian approach to the fate of an individuated woman yields an unexpectedly
prophetic layer of meaning to Destiny, further corroborated by the discussion of
Paul Leni’s Waxworks.
Unlike Destiny, the overall mood of Waxworks is lighter, at times even self-
ironic, and the structure of the lm, reecting the erratic individuation process
11 Catalysed after 1933 by the ofcially endorsed pessimistic eschaton (or myth about the end of
the world) of Norse mythology, and the constellation of (the god of war) Wotan archetype in
the collective unconscious, this collective death-wish brought about the conagration of WWII
(see Jung’s Wotan essay at http://www.cgjungpage.org/learn/articles/analytical-psychology/47-
jungs-shadow-two-troubling-essays-by-jung. Last accessed 30. 03. 2019)
49German Cinematic Expressionism in Light of Jungian...
of the protagonist – a quintessential puer aeternus, known by the generic name
the Poet – consists of three segments instead of four, framed by an introductory
and a conclusive episode. Needless to say, the handsome Poet leads poor and
provisional, “more or less imaginary” life due to “fear of being caught in a
situation from which it might not be possible to escape” (Sharp 1991). Ironically,
he imagines himself caught in three such situations, two of which he overcomes
thanks to the lovely Eva, who appears as personication of his anima.
The rst segment is a playful rendition of motifs from the Middle-Eastern One
Thousand and One Nights tales, featuring the fabulously rich sultan Harun-al
Rashid, and the Poet as his neighbour, the poor baker Assad. Instead of beheading
him for polluting his palace with smoke from the bakery chimney, the sultan falls
for his beautiful wife Zarah, a personication of the Poet’s anima, who evokes a
universally coveted “collective and ideal sexual image,” which – as Jung implies
– is “modelled after Helen of Troy,” and is every bit as shrewd as her historical
prototype (Sharp 1991). Obsessed with the near-impossible task to strike it rich,
Assad decides to steal the sultan’s famous wish-fullling ring, which would
secure the good life for his beloved Zarah. And, as only a fairy tale would have
it, while Assad is sneaking into the palace, the sultan clandestinely nds his way
to Zarah’s place.
The ring Assad brings back – along with the arm of the sultan’s wax doppelganger
left in his bed for conspiracy purposes – turns out to be false, pointing to the
Poet’s bungled individuation. Which is to be expected from a puer, who never
gets things right and subconsciously sabotages success. What is more, the falsity
of the ring – otherwise a symbol of psychological wholeness – complicates even
further his quest for maturity. Yet instead of a bloody confrontation with his
powerful rival, his anima, that is Zarah – in a twist, worthy of Shahrazad –
succeeds in mediating the dangerous puer-senex standoff by wrapping both the
jealous Assad and the lascivious sultan around her nger.
Visually, this segment is as seamlessly expressionist with regard to settings,
lighting, and acting, as are From Morn to Midnight (Von Morgens bis Mitternacht,
Karlheinz Martin, 1920), Caligari, and some episodes of The Hands of Orlac. The
rounded shapes and irregular cavities of its exquisite, Antoni Gaudí-like décor
force the sultan to drag his corpulent body in and out of Assad’s strange abode,
thus externalizing the challenges of the forbidden love. [Fig. 8.] Assad’s tortuous
movement through the maze of spiral passages, on the other hand, symbolizes
the Poet’s descent into the nurturing pits of the collective unconscious for it is
there – according to the main theme in the visionary Part II of Faust – where “the
50 Christina Stojanova
Realm of the Mothers” is, and wherefrom “the creative process arises”12 (van den
Berk 2012, 103).
The mood of the second segment, albeit sombre, is tinged with irony, stemming
from the exotied world of Ivan the Terrible, the infamous late medieval Russian
Tzar. The predominantly elongated and pointed architectural shapes – tailored
after the tall-slim gure of the Tzar – counterbalance the rounded ones from the
previous segment, apparently enthused by Harun al-Rashid’s curvy forms. The
skylines, though – dened here by the onion shapes of Russian orthodox churches
– rhyme with the Middle-Eastern arches and minarets from the rst segment.
The autocratic Tzar, a rigidied senex totally devoid of Eros, is “secretly […]
inuenced by primitive impulses,” like taking sadistic-voyeuristic pleasure in
watching prisoners tortured in the Kremlin dungeons, and in colluding with his
poison-maker to annihilate his enemies, yet living in mortal fear of assassins and
poisoning (von Franz 1993, 112). Such a “negatively perceived paternal power
gure” is bound to have a psychologically paralysing effect on the Poet’s puer,
embodied by the handsome Prince, who is about to marry a beautiful noble girl (von
Franz 1993, 110). The bride – Eva’s second avatar – personies his pious anima
which, according to biblical and other mythological traditions, is “manifested
in religious feelings and a capacity for lasting relationships,” symbolized by the
Virgin Mary (Sharp 1991). When, mistaken for the Tzar, the bride’s father gets
assassinated, the Prince is stupeed by the latter’s brutal “efforts to maintain his
status of a privileged […] voyeur” by forcing the grief-stricken wedding guests to
make merry in order to entertain him (Telotte 2005, 23). Angered for having instead
become a “subject of […] their horried looks,” the Tzar – while preparing to dele
the bride – sends the Prince to the dungeons to be tortured (Telotte 2005, 23).
Now, “dreams of imprisonment,” along with “chains, bars, cages, entrapment,
bondage” are “common symptoms of puer psychology,” since “life itself is
experienced as a prison,” in comparison to the childhood the puer is so reluctant
to part with (Sharp 1991). The Prince is saved at the last moment by the Tzar’s
sudden xation with turning over incessantly an oversized hourglass, which has
been used for counting down the seconds left before his victims die. A menacing
symbol of mortality, the hourglass – along with its miniature version at the
beginning of Destiny and the prominent town clock striking off the minutes,
allotted to the Young Woman – signals the eerie timelessness of this “superhuman
world of contrasting light and darkness, which surpasses man’s understanding
and to which in his weakness he may easily succumb” (Jung 1989b, vol. 15, 90).
12 So, by the way, believed Lacan, when dening his Imaginary Order as the domain of the Mother.
51German Cinematic Expressionism in Light of Jungian...
The segment closes with the devastated bride – the Poet’s anima, the archetype
of life itself – cradling in a Pieta-like way the listless Prince in her arms, while
watching the Tzar go completely mad.
Obviously alarmed by the stories spawned in the “hinterlands of his mind,” the
Poet approaches with a greater care Jack the Ripper, the third historical personage
he is asked to write a story about. And, in an attempt to transcend his horric
misogynistic legacy, amalgamates him with the semi-mythological Spring-heeled
Jack, known for attacking both males and females in 19th-century London and
its vicinity. Yet, the Poet ends up with only a very short piece – about seven
minutes screen time – which captures the nale of the third story. After having
avoided, thanks to luck and his resourceful anima, the deadly face off with two
murderous senēs – the Poet is xated on the inevitability of a nightmarish ight
from a third, and a much more dangerous one. And although the image of Eva
ickers behind the barrage of superimpositions of Jack’s wax gure, who blocks
all exits, intensifying the Poet’s sense of entrapment, it is not clear whether she is
part of the story, or just a hallucinatory vision. And just when the Ripper is about
to get him – and maybe also her! – the Poet wakes up with Eva by his side.
Despite the fast-paced editing, and the exquisite cinematographic tricks – or
special effects – praised so much by Eisner (2008, 122), this segment is hardly
“an acceleration near the end, typical of stories that employ suspense,” as its
brevity would have dragged the whole lm down were it not contextualized so
well symbolically (Coates 1991, 61). The ensuing conclusive episode therefore
shows the Poet back where he was at the opening – at the writing desk in the
claustrophobic connes of the wax-museum – before his imaginary quest for
individuation began. In light of this, the short third segment could be seen as
a ight from the forth – nal, and most challenging – stage of individuation,
where the “anima, symbolized as Sophia (or Wisdom), functions as a guide to
the inner life,” and a mediator between the conscious and the unconscious mind
(Sharp 1991). The frightened Poet has instead chosen to return – or regress – to
the stage where his anima, symbolized by the biblical Eve, or his love interest
Eva, has become once again “indistinguishable from his personal mother” (Sharp
1991). Yet in this womb-like place, called signicantly the Panoptikum (that is,
Panopticon), the Poet is under the perennial watchful gaze of the three patriarchal
tyrants, and therefore could hardly be driven to realizing the repressed “desire
of a patriarchal eros […] to reassert itself against the growth in feminine power”
(Coates 1991, 62). On the contrary, the deadly designs of these senēs, if anything,
are bound to catalyse the Poet’s new quest for individuation through art which,
52 Christina Stojanova
for Jung, was “a highly effective form […] because it is a confrontation with the
other in the imagination” (Rowland 2008, 186). Such a quest would be the only
way to release both himself and Eva from being stuck between the patriarchy of
the senex and the womb-like domain of the mother, and transcend conformity or
death as their only ways out.
In Way of Conclusion: the Faust-Mephistopheles Dyad
As seen so far, the psychological and the visionary art – although “not wholly
different realms” of German Expressionist cinema – are, to quote Rowland
again, still “pushed apart to polar extremes,” but brought together again by the
archetypal story of Faust and his unearthly enticer Mephistopheles. Inspired
by legends about the medieval German alchemist and astrologer, the existential
drama of Dr Faustus has become a central myth of European modernity thanks to
Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor
Faustus (1604), and certainly by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s tragedy Faust
(1832). Paradoxically, F. W. Murnau’s Faust which, along with Metropolis (Fritz
Lang, 1927) is among the last works Erich Pommer produced before his forced
resignation as the head of UFA, and therefore executed on a lavish budget as a
“cultural monument,” in Kracauer’s words “misrepresented, if not ignored” the
signicant motifs “inherent in its subject matter,” thus turning the lm adaptation
into a “monumental display of artice” (1974, 148).
When tracing the aesthetic and conceptual sources of German Expressionist
cinema, Eisner, following Oswald Spengler, discusses the importance of what she
calls the “‘Faustian soul’ of the northern man,” and juxtaposes its predilection
for a world, “swathed in gloom,” and “frightful solitude” – epitomized by the
“Germanic Valhalla” – to the theatre of Max Reinhardt (2008, 51). He, as she
reminds us, “was Jewish,” and therefore “created his magical world with light,”
where “darkness served only as a foil to light” (Eisner 2008, 56). Canadian scholar
Paul Coates homologizes Eisner’s (and Spengler’s) notion of the Faustian soul to
that of Hans Schwerte’s idea of the Faustian man, who “traduced” the Faustian
myth to a symbol of “an ideology” of “the titanic German national destiny,”
dominating Wilhelmine Germany (1991, 29). Small wonder, then, that Faust – in
a “symbiosis with Mephistopheles” – is considered as “the pervasive, frequently
disguised hero of Weimar cinema” (Coates 1991, 30).
Jung, in turn, was interested mostly in the role of Mephistopheles as a Trickster
gure, the shadow brother of Christ, so to speak. In Faust, he wrote, “I rst
53German Cinematic Expressionism in Light of Jungian...
found conrmation that there were people […] who saw evil and its universal
power, […] and the mysterious role it played in delivering man from darkness
and suffering” (1989a, 60). Religious historian Mircea Eliade comes to a similar
conclusion when speaking about the “unexpected” mutual “‘sympathy’ between
God and the Spirit of Negation,” that is Mephistopheles, since “for Goethe evil,
and also error, are productive.” Or as Goethe himself put it, “it is contradiction
that makes us productive” (1962, 79). Thus, for both Eliade13 and Jung,14 this
coincidence of opposites – or coincidentia oppositorum – is an imperative
condition for understanding the workings of the human psyche and human life
in general, and German Expressionist cinema offers an ample evidence of it.
In its various manifestations, the symbolic richness of the Faust-Mephistophelian
dyad is at the core of the German Expressionist corpus. Thus The Earth Spirit
(Erdgeist, Leopold Jessner, 1923), the rst adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s
eponymous play, sees Lulu as a female version of Goethe’s Earth Spirit. That is, a
warning for trials yet to come and thus part of works – initiated by the succubus
Genuine from Wiene’s eponymous lm from 1920, and closed by the false Maria
in Metropolis – about vamp fatales, who like the Greek goddess Circe, tempt men
into self-destruction by forcing their hidden depravities into the open.
Moreover, the Faust-Mephistopheles dyad has a decisive function in dening
the genre mode, the character types, and above all, the psychological or visionary
nature of Expressionist lms. Thus in psychological works, the tandem is strictly
divided into characters Elsaesser denes as “young, petit-bourgeois Fausts” – or
Everymen Fausts – and those he calls “Mephisto gures” (2000, 66). It is enough
to mention Nera (The Hands of Orlac), Scapinelli (The Student of Prague), or
the title personages from Nosferatu, Tartuffe and Dr. Mabuse, to recognize the
“Mephisto gures” as autonomous constellations of pure archetypal evil, meant
to bring about the total demise of petit-bourgeois, Everyman Fausts. In visionary
works, on the other hand, as has been demonstrated above by the Illusionist, the
Death, and the three senēs, the Faust-Mephistopheles dyad works as coincidentia
oppositorum, which throws in high relief the interrelatedness of evil and creativity,
of temptation and inspiration, and of egotism and selessness in the process of
individuation. Indeed, as Jung has wittingly put it, it might never be known “what
13 Eliade nds evidence of concidentia oppositorum in religious myths about “the consanguinity of
God and Satan, or of the Saint and the Devil-woman,” which reect “an obscure desire to pierce
the mystery of the existence of evil or the imperfection of the divine Creation” (1962, 92–3).
14 For Jung coincidentia oppositorum or the transcendent function, fuelled by tensions of rationally
irresolvable contradictions between conscious/unconscious, ego/shadow, anima/animus, has
ultimately a positive transformative or transcendent impact on the totality of the Self.
54 Christina Stojanova
evil may not be necessary in order to produce good by enantiodromia,15 and what
good may very possibly lead to evil” (Jung qtd. in Sharp 1991).
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List of Figures
Figure 1. Robert Wiene: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari,
57German Cinematic Expressionism in Light of Jungian...
Figures 2–3. The shadows as a staple aesthetic trope of German Expressionism.
Arthur Robison: Warning Shadows (Schatten, 1923).
Figures 4–5. The mystical potential of locations in Fritz Lang’s The Weary Death/
Destiny (Der müde Tod, 1921) and Paul Leni’s Waxworks (Wachsgurenkabinett,
Figures 6–7. Fritz Lang: The Weary Death/Destiny (Der müde Tod, 1921).
58 Christina Stojanova
Figure 8. The Antoni Gaudí-like décor of Paul Leni’s Waxworks