Silent Film Series: The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari [1920]



When the dearly departed Roger Ebert reviewed German directors' Robert Wiene's seminal classic The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari, he regaled that it could make a case for being the first horror film but that is not entirely the most accurate moniker as quite a few horror films had indeed been made and released before it. However, as I do not have the same credentials as Roger I will not make this review an argument to his point. One thing I will say with absolute confidence though, this is one of the earliest, most visually rich, thematically consistent and downright bizarre horror movies ever made. Oh, and the fact it is an unwitting prophecy of World War II.

A carnival rolls into a German town headed up by the questionably-minded hypnotist Doctor Caligari (Werner Krauss) who has with him a bewitched somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who is able to see the future. What follows after a fateful encounter between Cesare and a member of the town, which results in the tragic and mysterious death of the resident as well as the ensuing investigation which naturally implicates Cesare.

As it typically is with German Expressionist films, The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari makes it's ultimate impression with the mind-bending visual style that appeals more to your subconscious and imaginative capacity than it does your rationality. This movie doesn't insult your intelligence, rather it calls on the abstract intellect you don't commonly apply to everyday life in order to make passage into the world it presents, A world of magic and mysticism playing out in front of you like a dream after you've had a tad too much LSD.
Although there are more than several horror and thriller based elements, Caligari crosses over the line of fantasy when you stop to think about it. Think about it this way- silent films didn't have the benefit of being able to tell long and complex story lines much more support the science of sound so movies by rule needed to keep things simplistic- the idea of magic, the supernatural appeals to us because it's not particularly intellectual, but instinctive. When our eyes see twisted environments such as we see in this movie, the abstract part of our brains kicks in that tells us that right now, this is the world we are a part of and we can't do much but follow along. With this mindset in place, the fantastical elements of the story fall a lot easier into place while still make sense to you.



Now, remember when I said this film was almost as an unofficial prolegomenon to that world event that made everybody unhappy? Well my dearhearts, here is why.

You see, Wiene made this film as a social response to German governance, or rather the far unscrupulous war government, to sum it up for you, Caligari targets the notion of brutal and irrational authority; the malevolent yet charismatic Dr. Caligari represents the German war government, and the mind puppet Cesare is symbolic of the common man conditioned, like soldiers, to kill without ever being permitted to question why. German intellectual Siegfried Kracauer, author of From Caligari to Hitler, firmly stated the film reflects a subconscious desire in German society at the time for a tyrant, and is an example of Germany's obedience to authority and unwillingness or fear to rebel against demented leadership. Esentially, Kracauer strongly implied the film was a premonition of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Teabaggers Party, and says the addition of the frame story turns an otherwise "revolutionary" film into a "conformist" one. If that isn't one of the most eerie contemporary prophecies out there I'm not a proud worker of W.I.G.S. Other themes that resonate through the film of course include the destabilized contrast between insanity and sanity, the subjective perception of reality, and the duality of human nature, psychological issues that each and every one of us can fall victim to. 
Creepy, creepy stuff when you take into consideration this movie was made after the first World War with the second almost a decade away but it all makes sense when you have the benefit of retrospect as well as the fact that when you look at how the movie looks, a twisted, unstable and quasi-nightmarish diorama, you can see it doesn't just mimic the minds of those whom Caligari afflicts but the actual state of affairs of Wiene's Germany which gave rise to a far more sinister element. Horrific indeed.

To posit Caligari is influential is understatement not to mention the equivalent of smacking you across the face with a sea bass- as with every piece of art, it has the power to impact subsequent generations and this is no exception. Although it's distinct visual style is an obvious given, it is no less a prevalent truth. Several examples include the genre of film noir which borrows heavily from German Expressionism, Soviet cinema as well as prominent directors such as Ingmar Bergman, Tim Burton, David Fincher and Rob Zombie (don't grouse, because he is) all owe something to Caligari and his cabinet of catastrophic wonders. Simply put, The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari has firmly integrated itself onto celluloid and there really is no means to be rid of it... which by the way is a good thing. A very good thing indeed.




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About Lady Lilith Sinclair

Hell's Gate Kicker/Elightened Eldritch/Daughter of Umbran Luminosity/Lunatic Fringe
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