Lost in the Movies: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a film inside of a film inside of a film. It encloses its various narratives, nesting them inside other narratives using a particular kind of dramatic twist - one that demolishes our initial context  - as a method of disorientation. Filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to M. Night Shymalan and David Lynch (who will definitely come up a couple more times in this review) walk the same crooked path this silent German Expressionist horror film paved. The power of the twist-trick, a gimmick at worst, an epiphany at best, is that nothing is the same afterwards: it doesn't only change our perception of whatever particular detail it skews, it makes us question everything - including the twist itself. Caligari is not the neatest use of the device, and at times it can feel clumsy, incomplete, or on-the-nose. But it is one of the most ambitious deployments of the twist (there are several twists, in fact) and one of the most deeply rooted in a profound historical moment.

What are Caligari's particular twists? The story is relayed by Francis (Friedrich Feher), a forlorn young man telling a stranger about his life; Francis and his friend Alan (Hans Henrich von Twardowski) are competing for the affection of the ethereal Jane (Lil Dagover) but swear loyalty to each other regardless of who she chooses. A romantic triangle is set up as the hook of this plot, but it is rapidly displaced by another element. The grotesque Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), a traveling showman, enters the village of Holstenwall to perform his somnabulist act with Cesare (Conrad Veidt), a very, very proto-Goth man whom Caligari claims has been asleep since infancy, but whom he can manipulate into physical activity and even soothsaying speech. When Alan asks Cesare for a fortune he is told that he will be dead before morning and sure enough, he is murdered in bed that night. Of course, it helps that Cesare himself is the one who stabs Alan to death.

From there, the film is preoccupied with Francis' efforts to reveal the killer (who has claimed several other victims as well); Francis even spends hours watching over Caligari's little wagon to ensure that Cesare stays inside his titular cabinet. That cabinet looks more like a coffin, one of several Caligari touchstones that will reappear in later horror films, although perhaps it was inspired by those later films' literary sources. There is nothing particularly shocking or unusual in these sequences and honestly, the film's pace at this point can be a bit of a drag. But things pick up when Cesare pursues Jane and then Francis discovers that the Cesare in the cabinet is in fact a dummy and Caligari flees to an insane asylum. There one of the film's most significant twists occurs. It's already a bit startling, even discomfiting, to consider that this accepted if offbeat entertainer might in fact be psychotic, as if the repressed elements the town has confined to the asylum are spilling out into the wider world. But Caligari follows this up immediately with a much more shocking reveal: Caligari is not the patient of an asylum, he's the director!

This realization shifts not only the details of the movie, but its overall shape: from now on, we mostly leave the town behind and focus on Francis' investigation of Caligari, learning what motivated him to transform Cesare into a murderous puppet. As a flashback of Caligari's backstory takes over the film, we are shifting more toward his perspective than Francis' which contributes to the sense of unmooring. Then, of course, comes the biggest twist of all: we return to Francis in the present day, his story ostensibly finished. As his unsettled companion leaves his side, Francis wanders offscreen and we cut to a wider shot of the courtyard of the asylum's courtyard we saw earlier in the film. We realize that Francis has been telling his story from this location, and we notice many familiar faces alongside him. And you were there, and you were there, and you were there: Jane is a remote patient who thinks she's queen, Cesare is a patient mildly plucking imaginary flowers, and Caligari is a doctor, but one we're encouraged to see as actually quite sane and sober, determined to cure Francis once he discovers his central delusion. The film ends abruptly at this point, a tacit admission that pulling out this rug is more important than what happens to all these characters "in the real world."

Of course, it's appropriate to talk of twists with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari because it is visually, as well as dramatically, twisted. Although a prologue, with the two characters sitting on a bench, appears to take place in a naturalistic setting, the flashback Francis induces immediately startles us with its stylized presentation. Exaggerated angles warp the screen, and nothing - not the furniture, not the buildings, not the roads - is plain or functional in its design. Caligari helped pioneer both the horror genre and German Expressionist movement, including the work of F.W. Murnau, G.W. Pabst, and Fritz Lang, who almost directed the film, and is alleged - quite likely apocryphally - to have come up with the big twist, before he decided to leave the project and was replaced by Robert Wiene. That said, the film itself is rather straightforwardly shot; while later Expressionist masterworks, particularly Murnau's, would deploy the camera itself as a tool of disorientation, Caligari mostly shoots its bizarre settings from a conventional, even theatrical, standpoint.

Because of this, the film has sometimes been criticized for relying too heavily on its set design and not enough on explicitly cinematic devices; before I even saw it for myself, I was aware of both its reputation and the criticism of its ostensibly dated, staid staging. And it's true that parts of the film, especially its earliest sections, can seem a bit lugubrious even by the standards of notoriously stretched-out Expressionist presentation. However, Cesare's trek through the distorted landscape is unforgettable. If the sets sometimes look too much like the painted backdrops they are, this is a moment where the characters enter inside and interact with these soundstage elements, and the film itself cuts between several different set-ups in a fashion impossible for a play. Besides, there is a certain charm to clearly painted backdrops; I'm reminded - not for the only time with this movie - of The Wizard of Oz, in which the fanciful "exteriors" are all the more magical for the way they blur obvious make-believe and vaguely convincing illusion: they manage to be both things at once.

Indeed, the tendrils of Caligari extend to many other iconic movies, underscoring its impact today. Veidt, here cutting a very Romantic figure - the bohemian Werther as proto-Frankenstein's monster - would later show up in Casablanca as the chief villain, a link between not just different eras in Germany but between different historical concepts of the nation: the dreamy, poetic nineteenth-century vision and the sharp, harsh twentieth-century stereotype. Speaking of Frankenstein's monster, I'm struck by the scene in which Caligari first summons Cesare. There is something deeply unsettling in how calmly Cesare opens his eyes, still lost in a fog as his responsive yet dormant flesh is suddenly animated; this reminds me of how the creature's awakening is depicted in Mary Shelley's book rather than James Whale's film. No lightning striking a stormy castle, no hyper-scientific machinery crowding the medieval milieu, no dramatic cries of "It's aliiiiive!" but simply the creepy opening of an eye and the creator's sinking panic at what he's wrought.

Of course, Whale's vision of the creature is present too, and not just through Veidt's stiff composure and shuffling gait. The shot of Cesare entering Jane's bedroom through a window presages many horror films for years to come - not only Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dracula's own antecedent Nosferatu; hell, even King Kong contains a variation on this theme. If this is indicative of the psychosexual dynamics underlying the genre, it's also interesting to consider how David Lynch deploys this same motif in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. In that case, the creature who crawls in from outside, through an opening that is not supposed to be an entryway, provides cover for a threat both more mundane and more horrifying. Caligari deploys a similar reversal, first by revealing that the ominous outsider Caligari is in fact an established authority figure, and then by revealing that the film's monster-movie narrative provides cover for an individual's psychological trauma.

Lynch's broader work also echoes the shape of this movie, however indirectly. Caligari's climactic displacement - of both individual characters and of the story's underlying premise - feels quite present in Mulholland Drive. Likewise Caligari's twisted reorientation and unsettling shift in viewer identification is echoed in Vertigo, which is probably the conduit carrying Caligari's influence to Lynch. Alfred Hitchcock, who worked briefly at a German studio during the silent era of filmmaking, was certainly deeply impressed by Expressionism, appropriating many of its effects for his own early work. Spellbound and Psycho are other Hitchcock films shaped by Caligari, the former through its setting and several of its twists (more than one doctor's authority is blurred with a patient's vulnerability) and the latter with its structured layering of twists upon other twists and, again, shifts in viewer identification (far more radically than either Vertigo or Caligari). Spellbound in particular, like Caligari, imposes an enclosed, feverish, visionary consciousness which manages to feel both claustrophobic and liberating.

Caligari's impact has been felt in film scholarship as well as filmmaking; in his politico-aesthetic study of German cinema, From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer cites the film as an anti-authoritarian project whose overall intent is undone by the restorative framing device. While it's true that the ending could play as a return to comforting norms, now that Francis' off-kilter flashback is contextualized, the final twist arguably throws us into an even more unsettled condition. After all, the audience has been encouraged to spend the whole movie clinging to Francis as its sane surrogate in this insane world. The ultimate revelation (that he himself is insane) erodes faith in such reassuring dramatic bulwarks. Caligari's overarching deployment of mental illness as a plot device can be as reductive and exploitative as many other early (and not-so-early) movies. However, this deployment does have a genuinely subversive effect by suggesting there's no such thing as a central, stabilizing normality, that in fact those who depend upon this illusion are the ones most divorced from actual reality.

Furthermore, in a perhaps contradictory fashion, we're unable to shake the impression of Francis' horror story. Even if Krauss plays the doctor much more "straight" in the final sequence, an unnerving aftereffect lingers and we can't help but feel that we shouldn't really trust him. Besides, I've noted how the film opens in a much more naturalistic milieu and the flashback is what initiates the strange, highly artificial style...but when the supposedly real, well-intentioned director drags Francis up to his chamber, the sets are still quite exaggerated. Have we really returned to some overarching reality? Or are we still lost in the dream? Caligari was conceived in a very particular era, scripted mere months after World War I ended, by two writers whose lives were impacted by the war: Hans Janowitz, an officer disillusioned with his experience at the front, and Carl Meyer, a draft dodger whose experience with a military psychiatrist made its way into Cabinet's premise. Although the cinema was already well over two decades old at this point, and its technical innovation made it very much a part of the new century's zeitgeist from the beginning, works like Caligari arguably hearken a truly modern turn for the motion picture art form. Indeed, if modernity is defined largely by a dizzied uprooting from comfortable systems of knowledge and perception, then The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari feels like one of the twentieth century's birth pangs.

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