Michael Seymour Blake talks movies
(This won’t be spoiler-free, although I truly don’t think anything written here with diminish your viewing pleasure.)
Artistic, contorted, claustrophobic set designs. Creepy, uncanny atmosphere. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s legendary reputation is well deserved.
During the winter of 1918/19, two pacifists (one a disillusioned officer during WWI, the other feigning mental illness to avoid service) wrote a screenplay for a movie that would influence a myriad of horror films and more for years to come. We owe so much to this German expressionist classic.
But listen: there’s more to it than just cinematic importance. It’s still friggin’ great.
I first saw an unrestored version of the film, spending most of my time squinting at indiscernible set pieces and blurry-faced characters who seemed like clouds masquerading as humans. Still, Caligari is so good that I came away satisfied.
Then I watched the newly restored version, and to quote the great Pointer Sisters—woo-wee! Seeing everything in the clarity I’m sure director Robert Wiene intended was a staggering experience, elevated by having initially viewed its visually inferior predecessor. I kept inadvertently yelling “damn!” as the background’s twisting depths revealed themselves.
Told as a frame story, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari follows Dr. Caligari, a crazed hypnotist who debuts a prophetic somnambulist named Cesare at a local town faire. After Cesare correctly predicts fairgoer Alan’s brutal demise, police stop another murder in progress. Is it the same perpetrator who killed Alan? And where does the mysterious Cesare fit into this whole mess?
There’s a bunch of allegorical readings to be wrung out here, from championing authority to challenging it, but the film works without intellectualizing anything. It conveys a general “allegorical feel” with or without historical context. (Though I do think understanding the historical context will only enhance your appreciation.)
The world of Caligari is unsustainable, slumping, on the verge of collapse. Having just experienced the horrors of war (in one way or another) undoubtedly influenced the writing duo’s darkly creative vision. But for me there’s also much to celebrate here. You can sense the human hands that crafted the sets and painted the shadows. Morbid as it is, it’s a testament to the beautiful power of people, to the act of making.
Alright MSB, enough with the sentimental stuff.
Conrad Veidt nails it as the ghoulish Cesare, portraying the tranced-out sleepwalker like he was born for the role. The guy looks to have been torn directly from the hypnagogic backgrounds.
With all Caligari has to offer—murder, intrigue, suspense, inventive sets—somehow my favorite scene is when Caligari feeds Cesare. There’s something oddly sweet about glimpsing this top-hatted man’s mundane, daily task (even if it’s just a necessary requirement to continue his nefarious plans).
The frame narrative setup wasn’t in the original script, but producers demanded a more hopeful ending. Both writers (Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz) vehemently opposed the change. I think they were right to fight against it, even if the added plot twist arguably helped make Caligari so memorable. The twist was more than unnecessary, perverting one of the intended themes—healthy distrust of authority figures. It also lessened the horror of the work, patting us on the head and assuring us that everything is under control. All this terror is our own mental illness. And good news! We can be cured of it.
Even this significant criticism can be almost painlessly forgiven. And to be fair, we’re offered the slightest hint of ambiguity as the camera lingers on the benevolent “real” Caligari’s face at the end. A filmmaker’s wink—maybe it’s not all in our heads? Maybe the world is a crooked, nefarious place run by crooked, nefarious people.
This genuine classic still manages to feel fresh and exciting. Got nothing but respect for it.
I wanted to use the word “perspectivism” here somewhere, but I ain’t smart enough to use it organically…
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