The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
1920, 74 minutes, now streaming on the Criterion Channel
The years between the two world wars were a particularly feverish and fertile time for German cinema. A quick glance of some of the images filling the screens at the time says a lot about the zeitgeist they reflected: stories of skull-faced vampires stalking the night, eerily possessed hands that drive their owners to murder, ghoulish smiles, humiliated civil servants, and an unforgettable serial killer who whistles Greig’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” to drown out the voices in his head. Visual media is so omnipresent these days that its ubiquity is often taken for granted. Imagine what it must have felt like to enter one of those elegant new movie houses where a mysterious and alluring new medium held sway. It would have been impossible to ignore the warning signs of a society still reeling from defeat in the Great War and teetering on the brink.
One of the most significant films made during this uniquely febrile time in German history was Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which turns 100 this year. Caligari is a pioneering horror flick, a still-potent example of how silent films can work their unique magic today. As with the best horror films, it casts its spell by working on the viewer’s mind, subtly bending the contours of what we perceive on screen, rather than simply jumping out at the viewer and shouting “Boo!” The Criterion Channel is currently streaming a curated series of German Expressionist films, including Caligari, and time has worn them all well.
The plot has a certain complexity that hasn’t worn thin, using a framing device and plot twists that wouldn’t be out of place in a movie today. In a way, it’s a movie that can’t possibly fall victim to spoilers since so many other movies have borrowed so liberally from it. It opens with an old man and a young man sitting on a park bench as a willowy, ethereal woman wanders by, whom the young man claims is his fiancé. When the old man inquires about her zombie-like state, the young one suddenly has a story to tell.
The titular Caligari, clad in hat and flowing black robe, has been offended by a piddling state bureaucrat who won’t come down off of his absurdly high desk to give him the permit to ply his trade as a carnival barker. Caligari is a hypnotist, with a sort of human dummy whom he summons on command named Cesare. The entry of Cesare is one of the best of its kind in cinema history: the chalk-white, black-clad undead zombie/robot/Frankenstein creature slowly opens his eyes as his face fills the screen. Needless to say, Cesar turns out be even more threatening than he looks and does quite a bit of exaggerated creeping into maidens’ bedrooms at night, dagger in hand.
The film’s famed Expressionism really deserves the capital “E.” You can tell that hours went into the bizarre and elaborate sets, which are unmistakably rendered in maniacal detail. The claustrophobia that this creates, the sense of something looming over the characters and jutting into the audience’s field of vision, feels quite contemporary. In our age of screens, social media and the constant updates of worrying information, the sets are in some ways similar to the kind of compressed emotional life that’s endemic to living in the 21st century. (There’s also some undeniable comic energy in a film full of black-clad Germans making angst-ridden faces, clutching their hair, and throwing their heads back in anguish while skulking against a wall.)
The film has often been cited as a case study in the debate between whether culture drives politics, or the other way around. Plenty of film studies classes have been taught using Siegfried Kracauer’s seminal book From Caligari to Hitler, which he wrote while in exile in New York City. Kracauer had studied Nazi propaganda and had a sense of what nascent fascism was like in real life. To make a richly multifaceted argument short, Kracauer suggests that Caligari’s diabolical mind control over his spellbound proxy is an allegory of Hitler’s eventual control over the German public.
In a certain sense, the relevance is inarguable. The juxtaposition between the film’s eerie plot and the sinister history that was right around the corner lines up pretty clearly. Hitler’s rather expressionistic use of mesmerizing crowd work techniques is well-documented: Dramatically altering his voice, using vivid hand gestures, he also paid great attention to theatrical lighting and sound, and props like flags and insignia. After Hitler and Goebbels caught a screening of the massively expensive, impressively successful, and still epic Metropolis, they offered Fritz Lang a job as the Party’s new propaganda minister. Whether or not Lang really told Goebbels to his face to take a hike, he made sure to get on the first plane out to Hollywood.
Of course, making or watching movies about tyrants does not a tyranny make. German Expressionism was just one particularly stylistic option for audiences seeking an escape into the darker side of life. If art alone could change society, the world would be a very different place. Charlie Chaplin was probably the most famous and beloved person in the world when he mocked Hitler in The Great Dictator, and that didn’t exactly stop its subject in his tracks. After playing Cesare, Conrad Veidt himself became a star, took an honorable stand against fascism, and went into exile only to—isn’t life funny?—often play Nazi characters, including the memorable role of Major Strasser in Casablanca.
The really scary thing is when politics becomes aestheticized, reduced to no more than a form of entertainment. When the institutions that create a country’s political life start to lose their hold on the popular imagination, and glittering images replace the democratic back-and-forth of politics, people start to mistake reality for illusion. And that’s when the real trouble starts. Cesare isn’t the true source of evil in the film; he’s merely a puppet. The director and writer, both pacifists and veterans of the war, intended to warn the public about the power of manipulation coming from high places, and that role is certainly fulfilled by Caligari. A hundred years after the release, we’ve gotten used to how that trick works, both in the movies and in real life. These days it seems more pertinent than ever to question the motives and psychology of the audience that keeps lining up to peer into the cabinet.