In Griffith's version of history, the Radical Republicans — ironically, the liberal Democrats of their day — were responsible not only for the Civil War but also the reign of corruption, miscegenation, and denigration of the noble traditions of the South known as Reconstruction. (The "good guys" riding to the rescue were conspirators in their own right: the Ku Klux Klan.) So successful was Griffith's blockbuster that it rewrote history, as well as influenced it, pumping up the then-sagging popularity of the actual Klan and reviving enthusiasm for what was then the national pastime: lynching.
A couple of years later, over in Europe, World War I ended with Germany defeated and humiliated and looking for answers in all the wrong places. Seeing an opportunity to indulge persecution complexes and paranoid fantasies, the burgeoning German film industry responded with The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), a highly successful expressionist thriller directed by Robert Wiene (who subtly but profoundly altered the original screenplay by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer). In it, a young man suspects that the carnival mesmerist of the title has been murdering people by means of a "somnambulist" whose mind he controls. But is Caligari an insane serial killer and all-powerful criminal, or is the guy who suspects him the one who is insane? Ultimately, the movie has it both ways.
A few years after Caligari, another hypnotist would unleash a crime wave in Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922). This arch villain, who practiced mind control, was a shape shifter with many fake identities who turned the amorality, disorder, and decadence of postwar Weimar Germany to his own advantage. He was a kind of racketeering Wizard of Oz and, as described by the great film theorist and critic Siegfried Kracauer, represented "an omnipresent threat which cannot be localized, and thus reflects [a] society under a tyrannical regime." A regime that the audience would one day willingly embrace, for as Kracauer notes, when offered an "alternative of tyranny or chaos," people will opt for the former. What that choice led to in Germany is implied in the title of Kracauer's classic book on the subject, From Caligari to Hitler.
PROJECTING PARANOIA: Ever since D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), Hollywood has trafficked in films that promote conspiracy. That trend is now stronger than ever.
Fortunately, no such dire prognostications have come true from Hollywood's variations on the paranoid-conspiracy theme. Or have they?
For a while, Griffith's Birth did not spawn any imitators as far as the conspiracy theme was concerned. But it and the early European prototypes introduced some of the key elements of the genre. They argued that, in a world of confusion, ambiguity, and dread, some scapegoat must be responsible. That scapegoat is usually some superhuman mastermind or an all-powerful faction that lurks unseen while manipulating events for a malignant purpose. By means of mind control, the scapegoat undermines individual identities and, through disguises, infiltrates and subverts legitimate social institutions.
In short, the genre provided the perfect template for the orgy of paranoia known as the Cold War. Starting in the '50s, Hollywood took the paranoid-conspiracy premise to heart, adding to it a few wrinkles of its own, and in subsequent decades would trot it out with adjustments, additions, and variations whenever the times offered the right mix of uncertainty, anxiety, and rage.