Janet Janzen, Ph.D., German Studies, McGill University, Canada
janet.janzen at mail.mcgill.ca
Modernity Gazing on Metamorphosis: Representations of Plants in German Language Film and Literature at the Beginning of the 20th Century
This dissertation explores representations of plants in German-language film and literature at the beginning of the twentieth century. Five examples serve as case studies, demonstrating the widespread preoccupation with the motif of the “dynamic plant” in German modernity. I argue this heightened interest in plant movement in literature and film demonstrates the interconnectedness of two broad cultural transformations that helped to change the popular perception of nature from one based in taxonomy and rigid hierarchies to a view of nature as a realm of living, dynamic forces in which plants, animals and humans all participate. The first transformation was intellectual, characterized by a reaction to materialist, positivist and mechanistic explanations of the natural world that helped to fuel a renewed interest in Romantic nature philosophy and vitalism. The second resulted from the emergence of new media, which directly transformed the representation of plants through time-lapse photography, speeding up their movements to the pace of animals. These transformations helped to challenge the hierarchy of humans, animals and plants, introducing instability and fluidity into categories of being. The changing perception of plants was met with a variety of reactions that ran along a spectrum from acknowledgement and anxiety in Gustav Meyrink’s short story “Die Pflanzen des Doktors Cinderella” (1905), and in the filmsNosferatu (1921) and Alraune (1928), to celebrating this new dynamism and fluidity in the short story “Flora Mohr: eine Glasblume-Novelle” (1909) by Paul Scheerbart, and the Kulturfilm, Das Blumenwunder(1926). The close readings of the films and short stories are supported by other examples of the dynamic plant motif from archival sources in addition to the work of scientists and writers such as Gustav Fechner, Maurice Maeterlinck and Raoul Heinrich Francé. This specific historical topic, the motif of the dynamic plant, shows the relevance of questions regarding life and ecology for a rereading of German modernism, in addition to the relevance of a grounding in German language and literature for a historical understanding of how thinking about life changed in relation to media. In this sense, the dissertation contributes to growing interests in media and ecology, as well as the growing field of Ecocriticism in German studies and all literary studies.