When cultural critics in the 1930s and ’40s grappled with the demise of the Weimar Republic, they turned to popular art forms such as cinema and the novel to retrospectively look for signs of Germany’s descent into fascism. Famously in film scholarship, Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947) tried to understand the “soul” of Germany through a study of its inter-war cinema by highlighting recurring narrative battles between chaos and authority. In the context of the novel, Georg Lukács’s essay “Realism in the balance” (1938) blamed modernist formal experimentation – expressionism in particular – for a retreat into subjective emotionalism and the social fragmentation of society. Instead, he argued, realism was most suited to capture the “social totality” and, in his view, therefore best placed to foster a revolutionary class consciousness.
Lukács’s essay is often considered a dogmatic example of “crude Marxism,” yet its underpinning assumption, the (reductive) link between realism and class consciousness, continues to inform dominant understandings of the narrative arts. In the reception of “serious” cinema, for example, directors deemed truly political, such as Ken Loach or the Dardennes, tend to be social realists. It is, perhaps, tempting then to think of the marginal status of social realism in the US as indicative of the country’s ambivalent and fragmented relationship with class politics (the only contemporary American director with a consistent oeuvre in this aesthetic paradigm I can think of is Ramin Bahrani). As the voting patterns behind Trump’s victory reveal, class consciousness is deeply fractured in the US where primary political identification is not with class, but race. While this is not new, the fact that a majority of white voters were willing to support a candidate in spite of his repeated denigration of women and minority groups laid this bare in brutal terms.
Lukács’s preference for the realist novel was not a question of style or the political intentions of the author, but rested primarily on its ability to show the whole of society and to provide narrative connections between its different strata. In Hollywood cinema, melodrama broadly speaking has been the favoured mode of depicting everyday injustices, not just historically as the “woman’s film” or more recently in queer cinema, but also in the context of 1990s hood films about the black male experience. The genre is not oblivious to class – melodramas are often good at showing intersecting forms of oppression – but tends to prioritise one narrative lens, which then determines the marketing of the film. This segregation of various social struggles into different niche markets of cinema can be seen as a cultural manifestation of social fragmentation, yet those who now blame Anglo-American identity politics for the rise of right-wing populism conveniently ignore that in France – the western country that has resisted identity politics most consistently – the Front National’s candidate is currently top of the polls for this year’s presidential elections. Moreover, a range of countries not renowned for identity-based social movements – Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines for example – have also recently embraced right-wing demagogues.
In the last two decades, the long format of contemporary American TV series has offered something akin to Lukács’s ideal of the social panorama. By producing TV with the same production qualities as cinema, yet extending the narrative scope beyond the compressed two-hour film, this format has allowed for an unparalleled capacity to map social relations across sprawling multi-layered narratives. The popularity of some of these series also suggests significant cultural impact, although Lukács’s essay never adequately addresses the question of how the class consciousness he believes art can foster is transmitted into wider society. Do influential artworks – even if they are not read or viewed by many – have the ability to filter through into the culture, or are audience ratings a true measure of ideological influence? If the latter, even some of the most influential long-format TV series struggle to compete against other forms of mass entertainment: while The Wire peaked at 4 million viewers and Breaking Bad at 10, the finale of the first series of Trump’s The Apprentice was watched by over 28 million people (although presumably serial dramas have a longer afterlife than reality TV).
In From Caligari to Hitler, Kracauer was less aesthetically prescriptive than Lukács and clearly admired some of the expressionist films of the period. For him, cinema, more than any other art form, represented national “psychology” because of its collective production conditions and its need to appeal to “mass desires”. While his readings of various films as premonitions of fascism may be overdetermined, the impulse to link new art forms to the political context in which they emerged is understandable. Indeed, the lasting legacy of Weimar cinema is a set of new genre templates – the horror film (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), sci-fi (Metropolis), the serial killer thriller (M) – that, while escapist and apolitical on the surface, easily lent themselves to allegorical interpretation.
Contemporary Hollywood, in contrast, is often explicit (and literal) about its frequently liberal politics yet conservative with regards to form. Films about social media, surveillance, and hacking for example – say The Social Network, The Fifth Estate, Snowden, or the latest Bourne – tend to stick to rather formulaic genre conventions, while dramatizing these political issues in largely inter-personal terms (Mark Zuckerberg designed Facebook to bully his girlfriend, Bourne wants to find out the secret about his father etc.). The last time the US underwent a political crisis of similar proportions, the strikingly similar topics of media, surveillance, and bugging were treated in the narratives of films such as The Conversation, Network, or All the President’s Men, but also directly influenced their form. The experimentation associated with the New Hollywood era was not merely a response to a political climate, but also a crisis in film industry to which there is no direct comparison today. Yet in the stranger-than-fiction era of Trump, the narrative standards of plausibility have been dramatically altered and genres such as the conspiracy and political thriller might have to reinvent themselves again.