The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Welcome to October, ye aulde scavengers of doorstep candies and defacers of guileless pumpkins.  This is a month unto itself in the world of film, a sort of embodied actor dictating the atmosphere and mood of its cinematic output with all the gusto of a mad composer.  Where December takes us to the stereo systems, bidding us hear the crooners and choirs in their mystic wonderlands of white, October ushers us manipulatively to dark rooms with dull lights emanating from silver screens.  It is a haunting force, not unlike the specters that inhabit it, simultaneously possessing us and scaring us away.  October is no mere month, it is a phenomenon, beckoning us to consume fear like we would fun-size chocolates and candy corns.  Trick-or-treating, costumes, haunted houses, plumes of dry ice flowing from plastic punch-bowls… none of these exorcise that possessive ghost of October quite like a scary movie.  Indeed, the genre of horror film lies at the very heart of Halloween celebration.

There was once a time where the horror genre produced masterpieces.  From the birth of Expressionism in Germany to the triumphant epoch of Alfred Hitchcock, the art of suspense was at the cornerstone of great film.  Indeed, its foundational precepts lay at the root of the suspense and action genres, and much of the first entries in this very website were dedicated to that doctrine.  It was the time of visual askewity mingled with literary fright, the sort of true terrors that last longer than jump-shots and loud shrieks.   It was from this appeal to the visual that the masters of the horror genre made their greatest contributions to the language of film, from the frightening shadows cast by the Vampyre in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu to the rhythmic slicing of both film and flesh in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Already, we have spent months on the profound impact of the early horror films on the development of American film noir, and, consequentially, French Poetic Realist hybrids like Le jour se leve.  Indeed, these were visual contributions.  It is only fitting then, that they would have started in the era before sound, when the film was nothing more than the moving image on the screen, stripped from multimedia influences like music, acting, and prose.  The literary element of suspense—in particular, the power of villainous empathy that I describe in my essay on suspense as well as my review of The Godfather—would incorporate itself later, particularly once Fritz Lang decided to make his Dr. Mabuse films and, even more apropos, his infectious and terrifying sound masterpiece, M.

This visual appeal to terror has not aged well into the modern generation, a generation that I believe to unfortunately desensitized.  As a result, horror film has abandoned its traditional, more artistic, language in favor or a multimedia excursion into cheapness: long periods of silence interspersed with sudden grotesqueries designed to “jump out” at you (not unusually based on some sort of tribal image or twisted play on Christian themes).  It is a sign of simplistic tastelessness, not artistic irony, that film is merely recreating a prank often performed between siblings hiding around corners or behind closed doors.  Throw in some high pitched dissonance on a violin or piano and a child singing a nursery rhyme (“so slowly!”) and you have the recipe for the witches’ brew that is contemporary horror film.

Scary, these movies certainly are.  I do not deny that.  But, good?  Not so much.

In my quest to open up doors into the vast universe of cinema to those who may be interested enough to read my blog, I, then, submit a new (or, depending on how you look at it, old) approach to your Halloween viewing.  Don’t look to be scared, look to be intrigued.  Look to be immersed into an atmosphere rooted in suspense and fright, not evil.  The more willing you are to engage yourself in a film, the more the film’s language will communicate to you.  You may just find that what you see scares you.  You might not, but at least you’ll be watching something good.  For a film to be a Slice of Cake, it should not tell you how to feel, it should instead invite you into itself, and invite you to participate in its recitation in your own way.  Then, movies become fluid, lasting experiences that get better with time.  They also act as legitimate forms of both art and entertainment.

Since I have spent the last two Decembers writing about holiday-themed films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Meet Me in St. Louis, I will spend the next however-many-Octobers-it-takes providing you a series of reviews focused on horror films that have been pulled from my list of the top 555 greatest films.  There are, unsurprisingly, a significantly larger selection of such films in that list than there were of the Christmastime variety: from 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to 2014’s The Babadook.  Perhaps these will provide good recommended viewing for your Halloween consumption.

Since there is really no better place to begin than at the beginning, let’s move into the focus of the remainder of this article: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

One could argue that modern horror cinema is further cheapened by the fact that there is no real stylistic variety between the pictures: all of them take place in the darkness and have a hyperactive fondness for grays, reds, and mutilated nuns and babies.  While I may agree with that conclusion that stylistic continuity is problematic because the style itself is poor, I would not agree with a conclusion that is merely because of this continuity that the problem arises.  In reality, there is something right about a visual style or movement integrating itself into a genre.  There is, I doubt, no better example of this than that of German Expressionism and the films that came from it.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is, hands down, the most quintessential example of this artistic form.  I discussed the form briefly but sufficiently in my essay on film noir.  Permit me, please, to quote myself:

In the silent film era, Germany ruled the horror genre.  With films like Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau, Metropolis by Fritz Lang, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by Robert Weine, the Weimar Republic was internationally acclaimed for the oeuvre of fright that its artists produced.  While the terror of these films has not aged well in this desensitized generation, the style lives on; and no true film lover could possibly watch the early works of these artists and not appreciate their haunting quality.

Like all great artists, these men were products of their time.  After the close of World War I, Germany’s economy was rocked with massive inflation and an isolation from the word brought on by strict trade barriers.  The treaty of Versailles had placed, perhaps fittingly, the blame of the Great War on Germany’s shoulders, and the weight of restitution was too much to bear.  From this economic turmoil came two conflicting waves in the artistic arena: from one direction came a wave of hyper-inflation that had no appearance of slowing down and from the other came a wave of market depression with equal ferocity.  This first wave effected the German population in many ways; the common anecdote that a bread cost a wheelbarrow full of Deustche Marks is not far off in its reality.  Just like it did in America, the value of their dollar (and its value tomorrow) led people to avoid saving, and film tickets were cheap.  A large movement to the theater swept up post-Versailles Germany.

As for the second torrential force, the wave of market depression, the film industry in Germany was highly pressured.  The lack of investment coupled with low profit margins due to inflation and resulted in disparagingly low budgets for German production companies, the most famous of which was UFA, which would be economically forced to sign a merger with Paramount Pictures in the United States in 1925 (after the import block was lifted in 1916).   And it’s not like they could stop making movies, the industry was technically thriving when one considered the consumption of their products, and there were no other outlets by which the consuming public could satisfy their spending; after all, Germany forbade foreign cinema as early as 1916.

The result: these artists made magic.

With small budgets and big ideas, directors like Robert Weine (along with their creative cohorts) developed a style greatly influenced by two key elements: mise-en-scène and light.  The inability to create set pieces in the tradition of Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith was not a problem for these artists, who did not need money to show what was going in their heads.  They wanted to express themselves in a way not bound by the confines of reality.  So, they started a movement of Expressionism.

At first glance, the products of expressionist art share many similarities with the surrealism that would come around later.  Both were concerned with existing outside of surface truth; expressionism was more about feeling while surrealism was generally associated with thought, but as aesthetic elements of a mise-en-scène, these two styles both made use of sharpness and distortion.  Expressionism in particular was interested in sharp angles and shadows.  In German cinematic Expressionism, one can palpably see the act of protest against the reality that existed outside the theater walls.  The German people felt distorted and broken, and the big screen acted as a giant mirror of their inner angst.

As for the elements of light, the German Expressionists used it like a painter uses color.  The principle of chiaroscuro in artwork was tailor-made for black-and-white cinema, and though every early filmmaker respected the basic premise, few exemplified this practice of pitting dark against light in the same way that the German Expressionists did….

Where the Americans (and other nations) were embracing realism, the Germans were profoundly rejecting it.  And, with the nationalist furor that erupted in 1920s Germany, the German people were becoming more and more faithful to this style….

Every genre, in the end, hopes to create art.  And art is all about telling stories or expressing emotions or conveying ideas in ways that can’t be told, expressed, or conveyed in much any other way than through an alternate reality or worldview.  It’s all about subjective vision.  The Germans, through Expressionism, embraced this in very literal ways.  They threw the real world out the window and told a story that existed in another dimension: the dimension of personal feeling underneath the scarred surface of a suffering person, culture, and nation.

In the same essay, I compared two still-shots, one from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance and one from the movie in question: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  It should be no wonder to anyone who has seen Caligari as to why I would select it as my example.  The visuals in the film are strikingly unique, and forever laid the groundwork for what would become the distinctive style of German horror films, American horror B-movies, film noir, and later embellishments such as Neo-Expressionism.  Take the following examples:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari tells a short story.  The film opens with Francis (played by Friedrich Freher) who proceeds to relate a story to a stranger about the troubles that he has gone through in the recent past.  The story then proceeds to unfold in flashbacks as we learn exactly what Francis has to say.  Ultimately, it is within the flashbacks that the primary story takes places.  A deranged mad genius (there was once a time when mad scientists were not meant for comedic purposes) uses a somnambulist to commit murders on his behalf.   When the somnambulist tries to abduct Francis’ fiancée, the hunt for the mad genius (Dr. Caligari, played by the shrewdish Werner Krauss) begins.

The story hinges on its visuals to come to life.  This is why the film is more than a stylistic play, it’s a true manifestation of the use of film as the seventh art in the context of the silent era.  André Bazin referred to films like Caligari as ones “in which ‘montage and the plastic composition of the image are the very essence of cinema’ and therefore in no need of support from sound.” (Katherine Blakeney, An Analysis of Film Critic Andre Bazin’s Views on Expressionism and Realism in Film).  In her brief analysis of Bazin’s take on this style of film, Katherine Blakeney said:

“The atmosphere and plot of the film are revealed entirely through visual means, using wildly abstract sets and dramatically exaggerated makeup. The film unfolds in an enthralling, completely artificial environment where even the movements of the actors echo the distorted angular shapes of their setting. Bazin is right in stating that such films are an entirely separate art form. The story is conveyed through the intricate interactions between images, lighting, composition, and movement. If The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was suddenly flooded with sound, its delicate visual would have been destroyed by the harsh invasion of reality. Reality has no place in this hallucinatory world of illusion, its beauty is in its dreamy detachment from the grounded, solid world outside the screen.”

And a “hallucinatory world of illusion” is certainly what you get in Francis’ and Caligari’s mutual world of terror.  The detachment from reality, a detachment that even, at times, seems to ignore the bounds of gravity, is not created in order to place the actions of the film in a different world, along the lines of a Star Wars film or The Wizard of Oz.  Rather, the world is our own, just through a different lens.  This dreamlike lens of expression places us in a mindset more than it does a location, and this and of itself is a fundamental theme of the film.

As a matter of fact, it is my personal opinion that the theme of the human mind—the mind’s eye, if you will—is the central theme of the film.  Much has been made of Caligari‘s thematics from an historical perspective; in particular, the works of Siegfried Kracauer are highly influential.  In the more historical light, Caligari acts as an allegory of the most prophetic nature: the tendency of the post World War I German population towards desperate obedience to tyranny, no matter how insane or deranged.  While there is profound historical value to this analysis, it is the insanity itself, not necessarily which party is insane, that most interests me (and that is saying a lot, seeing as I have profound interest in politics and history generally).

Kracauer’s opinion is made all the stronger and more enlightening when the plot twist at the end is delivered, a plot twist that ranks as one of the best plot twists in history.  But that still does not take away from the theme that cuts through the heart of the entire picture, the theme to which every visual abstraction points, namely, the theme of the perception of the human mind, both sane and insane.  How much of a difference is there, really, at the deepest roots of those hallucinatory worlds? Is there a duality to humanity, a polarity between sane and insane, or is the world far more gray in regards to human sanity than it is black-and-white?  The plot twist at the end goes far to further entrench this question as the vein through which all the action in the film takes place.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari will not make you cringe, scream or grab the arms of your sofa seat with white-bared knuckles.  I do not pretend that a more intellectual approach to the film will lead to a more terrified viewing.  This film, however, will go far to introduce your mind into a new realm of vision, one that in and of itself will frighten you.  The world of Caligari is a delirious, mind-twisting one, persistently off-balance and perpetually cycloning inward to some unknown fate.  It is not a welcome world, but, like the force of October itself, it beckons you to come in anyway.


5 thoughts on “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

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