Silent Movie Saturday: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919)
If the title “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari” brings back memories of painful undergraduate film studies lectures where you just wanted to get on to discussing which was the best Lethal Weapon, then its safe to say we have different attitudes towards cinema. However, before you scroll onward, looking for some leaked teaser footage from the new Star Trek film, let me try and explain why Caligari is worth your time.
It was released in 1919 after the film industry had started to recover from the First World War, when feature length narratives had started developing into an art-form in their own right, no-longer relying on the boundaries that theatrical performances had unwittingly imposed on the staging and narrative conventions of cinema. Germany and its citizens were shell-shocked: mentally, physically, socially and financially, from the effects of war, and, along with most other European countries, were searching for a way to reconnect to their national identity. One method was through their cinema, which was able to present new realities that reflected the state of the nation, and were able to provide criticism or guidance through the narrative of individual films.
Many of the creators of ‘Caligari’ were themselves survivors of the Great War, and combined their experiences with the burgeoning Expressionist movement to create a film that was able to both stand alone as an Expressionist work of art, and be a subtly disguised commentary on the state of Germany’s national identity. The film begins with in a gothic styled garden, with the ghostlike presence of Jane, Francis’ lost love, lingering in the ethereal atmosphere. The majority of the film is a flashback, telling the story of how Francis came into contact with Dr Caligari and his somnambulist at a town fair, and the murders that ensued. After Jane is abducted, Francis tracks Caligari to a mental asylum, where he turns out to be the head of the asylum, who, with the help of the recently admitted somnambulist, has been disguising himself as the mythical figure of Caligari who perpetrated similar acts 200 years ago. But the story does not end there: after Francis finishes his tale, we return to the garden of the asylum where – turns out to be an inmate; the characters of his stories all resemble people around him in the asylum. Francis grabs the head of the asylum, who resembles Caligari, but is forced into a straight jacket and taken away, his delusions having gotten the best of him.
‘…Caligari’ was a pioneering film, so much so that it was a cinematic dead-end: other films could only borrow ideas from it rather than imitate its overall style, which would go on to be disseminated into genre cinema over the following decades. It was one of the first successful horror films of the silent era, becoming popular in America as well as in Germany. The atmosphere of the film is one of overriding claustrophobia, and the sense that Francis’ world is slowly unravelling, with the revelation that the majority of the film has taken place inside his mind. He has created this elaborate story from elements of the individuals around him as a way of justifying his delusional state. This could be seen as a metaphor for the shell-shocked soldiers returning from war, forced to interiorise their traumatic experiences in an effort to re-integrate themselves into normal society. Francis, however, fails at keeping his mental horrors under control and they spill out into his reality, and onto the screen for us to witness, effectively making the film a cautionary tale about what may happen to those who cannot deal with the terror of reality.
As well as prefiguring the psychological horror genre, it also has elements of what would become the Slasher film, as well as setting the stage for the Universal Horror films which was born after several German directors emigrated to America in the 1920’s. Many of the visual elements which make the film so striking were adapted in a watered down fashion in the films of Fritz Lang, notably the Dr Mabuse films, which featured a criminal mastermind baring a passing resemblance to Caligari. Lang would integrate expressionistic elements into his films which would later evolve into Film Noir after his relocation to America.
In terms of its narrative influence, the story within a story structure would evolve to influence countless films over the following decades up to the present day. The fact that the film ends with the revelation that the whole story was a creation of the main protagonist’s mind showed future filmmakers that film did not have to be based solely in the realms of psychological accurate realism, and films could play with the audience’s expectations and assumptions by revealing shock endings or twists which turned the narrative on its head, forcing audiences to reassess what they have been watching.
These are just some of the reasons why ‘…Caligari’ is a great film and worth watching. Even if you are averse to silent films, it deserves to be seen due to it unknowingly paving the way for so many cinematic genres and ideas that we take for granted these days.