Public psyche theory was proposed by Siegfried Kracauer in his book, from Caligari to Hitler (Kracauer 1947). Kracauer suggested that film was an expression of the psyche of the society it came from, and that the themes and ideas expressed in these films were a product of the fears, beliefs and ideals of these societies. He proposed that as film was such a collaborative effort involving many different people, and by looking at these films worked as a predictor of where the society would go in the future.
He pointed to the films of the German expressionist movement in the 1920s as a predictor of the rise of fascism in Germany that took place in the years preceding World War II. He suggested that German expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene 1920) and Metropolis (Lang 1927) illuminated an aspect of the German psyche that demonstrated German people were ready to accept the fascist government of the Nazi party in the 1930s.
However, Kracauer’s theory has not been without criticism. If we are looking at film as an expression of the public psyche, it may more accurately represent how cultures process their past, rather than illuminate what will happen in the future. It is extremely difficult to evaluate if media created in the past is a predictor of the future, as the nature of hindsight does not allow us the distance to evaluate this empirically. We are too aware of what actually transpired to look at films from the past as a predictor.
In relation to Kracauer’s theory, it has been suggested that the elements of German expressionism that Kracauer believes predicted the rise of fascism are more accurately described as a response rather than exposing a facet of the German psyche that predicted fascism. It could be suggested that the films are a reaction to the horror and violence of World War I, and the social upheaval that resulted for Germany in the 1920s Weimar republic.
It is perhaps easier to review it in the context of a different film movement, as this will demonstrate the value of the theory outside the context of German expressionism. Kracauer himself argued in 1946 that Hollywood’s exploration of violence and terror was reflective of the state of mind of the American people at the time (Kracauer 2003), so we can determine that he meant for the theory to apply outside the specific example of German expressionism.
The film Coffy (Hill 1973), a part of the Blaxploitation film movement, can be evaluated through the public psyche theory prism. The film stars Pam Griers as the titular character. The film was part of the wider Blaxploitation film movement. Blaxploitation emerged from the United States in the 1970s, and was notable for featuring mostly black protagonists and a largely black cast. In many instances, the films were notable for their different portrayal of black characters in a variety of roles across different genres. It has been argued that Blaxploitation films emerged as a reaction to the tumultuous events of the 1960s, particularly the civil rights movement (Walker, Rausch and Watson 2009).
Coffy itself was notable for featuring one of the first female action heroes, and particularly one of the first black female action heroes. While some critics derided the film as ‘trash’, it was a huge commercial success (Lawrence 2008). The split reactions to the film reflected the split of opinion on race relations in America at the time, where some (predominantly white) Americans struggled with integration after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which lead to a backlash.
So, viewing Coffy through the lens of public psyche theory, what can we say that the film predicted? Perhaps Coffy’s representation of an active, young black female protagonist is particularly relevant here. While it may seem quite pedestrian by 2018’s standards, Pam Grier’s portrayal of Coffy was definitely revolutionary in the 1970s, and the fact that we do not find it to be notable now makes a case for public psyche theory’s relevance.
However, when we interrogate further it seems that there is more evidence to the contrary for the theory. One particular problem with the application of public psyche theory to Coffy is that the film (and the majority of films in the wider Blaxploitation movement), was made by a white director and studio. Specifically, in relation to Kracauer’s theory, Noel Carroll (1998) argued The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was made by revolutionaries and was therefore not something that can be utilised to evaluate the psyche of a culture collectively. Carroll argues that Kracauer’s theory relies on literal interpretation of the story taken on its own, rather than a holistic evaluation of the film, including the aesthetics and underlying themes.
We can also apply this criticism to Coffy. Can we be assured that the filmmakers were representative of the average American? Perhaps Kracuer’s supposition that there is such a thing as a public psyche, that cultural groups and countries produce monolithic collective thought is flawed in itself. This evaluation of culture leaves little room for nuance, and in the case of 1970s America, these nuances would matter when evaluating the public psyche, as the country was so divided after the events of the 1960s.
When we look at what Coffy predicts about the future through revealing the public psyche in the 1970s, perhaps the role of women is the most important aspect. Coffy was one of the first examples of a female action hero in film. When we look at the position of women today as opposed to the 1970s, the depiction of Coffy does not feel revolutionary. Coffy was also notable at the time for its anti-drugs messaging, at odds with American culture in the late sixties.
This is perhaps where we can see the merit of Kracauer’s theory; affecting societal change is difficult and takes many years, with change being affected over hundreds of years and not always in a linear fashion. Film can reflect ideals in a way that real life cannot, and more importantly, the relationship can be symbiotic. The nature of film is pervasive, and the content of films can be internalised in a way that is not true of other forms of mass media. While it is almost impossible to evaluate film as a predictor of the future in the way proposed by Kracauer, perhaps we can see where film has expressed ideas that have later become part of the cultures the film came from. It would follow then, that Coffy both refutes and supports Kracuer’s theory. When we look at the social and political context of Coffy, we can draw parallels with the political landscape of today, particularly the divisions. Perhaps this is the most important way Coffy predicts the future, in that a lot of what we consider specific to certain places and times can often resonate in the present.
Carroll, N. (1998) Interpreting the Moving Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Hill, J. (1973) Coffy. United States: American International Pictures
Kracauer, S. (2003) ‘Hollywood’s Terror Films: Do they Reflect an American State of Mind?’. New German Critique (89), 105-111
Kracauer, S. (1947) From Caligari to Hitler : A Psychological History of the German Film. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press
Lang, F. (1927) Metropolis. Germany: Ufa
Lawrence, N. (2008) Blaxploitation Films of the 1970s. New York: Routledge
Walker, D., Rausch, A., and Watson, C. (2009) Reflections on Blaxploitation Actors and Directors Speak. Lanham: Scarecrow Press
Wiene, R. (1920) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Weimar Republic: Decla-Bioscop