Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #13 – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Posted: March 26, 2018 in Uncategorized

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

If you’ve been paying attention, you might be aware that my common whine about classics that don’t land as well with me is – “it benefits from being first.” Or not, it’s not on me at the moment to do the word archeology on my posts or the other reviews I did before the current format. Usually, I mean it in a slightly negative manner as in…

Last of the Mohicans as a reading experience could have been so much more and, basically, it benefits from being first.”

With The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a nearly-hundred-year-old silent horror movie, yes, we do get to say the above but not so much from a position of the negative. Rather let’s think about it from the flipside appreciating the ambition that goes into this movie and treat it as a learning experience. For me, the things that didn’t land belly-flopped (but only slightly from the Three-Meter Springboard, not the more painful Thirty-Meter Platform) because I have the benefit of that century of filmmaking in between. And since most film nuts can go Chapter and Verse explaining how Caligari influenced all kinds of movies coming after, we get to see the why of that body of work evolving the way it did – “Dude, we can do so much better once we figure out the film grammar to do that.”

We open on two men on a bench in a garden telling tales of woe how they got there. A crazy lookin’ lady in white with saucer wide eyes wanders through the scene. The younger man, Francis, asserts she is his fiancée and tells their story of woe. Cut to a yellow-lit scene introducing Francis’ very good friend, Alan, and that the fair is coming to town…

Okay, it’s a hundred-year-old early example of German Film Expressionism that tells the story of Francis and Alan, who share a love for Jane (the lady in white). Meanwhile, Dr. Caligari is made to wait a minute or two too long at the city clerk’s office to get a permit to show off his spectacular somnambulist at the fair. At the far, Francis and Alan enter Dr. Caligari’s sideshow tent and Alan makes the mistake of asking the awakened Cesare, the sleepwalker when he might die – “Until the break of day.”

Cesare awakens at Caligari’s command to kill his enemies: the town clerk, Alan and a few others. Francis runs around the town trying to stop the evil doctor and sleepwalker who prove cunning foes what with strategically using a wax dummy that looks like Cesare whenever Caligari might be observed in his rooms. Francis frantically tries to get the authorities to do something, following Caligari to a mental hospital.

Francis thinks that Caligari is hiding out as the unnamed hospital director and finally seems to make the other doctors aware that their boss is a homicidal nutcase to be thrown into an available cell in straightjacket. But, then we do have the wrap around story of Francis and the other man to get back to and…

We discover that Francis is and always was a patient at the hospital and in his delusions decided that the director made a great Caligari. The director who looks normal now feels happy because now he knows how to cure Francis. Curtain, or rather iris to black…

Many things about this movie landed starting with the acting. Uniformly from the old highly emotive and gestural acting style of early silent films (which is not necessarily how you act when you have a microphone on which to fall back) everybody whether Francis (Friedrich Feher), Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), Jane (Lil Dagover) and especially Director/Dr. Caligari (Werner Kraus) just eats up the scenery with sausage and butter.

This acting intended to trade on the emotional state of nightmares optimized for disturbing rather than outright terrifying works hand in glove with the set design. Utilizing the painted on cardboard set backdrops of most stage plays and favoring the viewer’s choice of off-putting triangles contrasted with the equally disconcerting truth of – “straight lines, what’re they?” – you’ll remember these sets a long time. And you’ll steal everything going forwards, which is exactly why cinema in general and horror movies specifically look the way the way they do 98 years later…

Need to terrify your female lead by having the monster/villain appear at her window on a gloomy night ready to enter? Act Four. At least, they decided to let Jane fight a little instead of going for total damsel in distress.

Need to have the hero unable to convince the local authorities of the problem? Also Act Four. Luckily, Francis was able to convince Dr. Olsen (Jane’s father) to try their hand with the police. Unreliable narrator? Check. Twist ending? Check.

I could go on beating the dead horse that you’ll will have seen many of the concepts, tropes and techniques in all kinds of later films that were started here. Many worked. A few didn’t, but only when seen against the hundred-year gap where the successor filmmakers had audience surveys and their own reactions to the movie from which to work to shoot for improvement.

The most glaring thing about this movie seen in 20/20 hindsight is the handling of the juxtaposition of the wrap around story with the main story that might be a total lie as told by a nutjob. There is absolute clarity that Francis was always a patient and that the story he told is a figment. The director (Werner Kraus made up to look normal and nonthreatening compared to Caligari) is an example of the helpful doctor/caregiver instead of megalomaniac intent on weaponizing his hypnosis puppet (somnambulist as a term was slightly misused), but later filmmakers could and would go further with the twist.

Some later filmmakers would use the last shot of the director to muddy up the clarity by going for a facial expression on the director’s face that evoked the manic state of Caligari. This would create spookiness in the last frame as the audience leaves for their lives. Give the audience a shiver creating the possibility that Francis might not have been a totally delusional unreliable narrator after all. That’s one thread. Have you seen any examples of this movie?

Another thread would be to take the story in the direction that leads to, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound where the story that Francis tells has a basis in fact and isn’t completely made up out of whole cloth. The therapist character puts together a puzzle by understanding the symbols. Aside from the example provided, have you seen this movie?

Yet another storytelling thread says that Francis lied through his teeth because he killed Alan for Jane’s hand and made up or enhanced the Director/Caligari to suit his ends. This thread branches again with the choice between said killing drives him crazy or he’s just an unapologetic monster. Have you seen any examples of these movies?

You’ll notice that all of these possibilities require that these filmmakers who hadn’t fully figured out close-ups, or even the ripple dissolve into the flashback somehow pull off film grammar that only came into being because other people watched this movie thinking how do I pull this off better? So in order to make the movie better, I need film knowledge largely inspired by this film.

Basically, this is a time travel paradox that would take all thirteen Doctors sonic screwdrivers at the ready, at least six Companions (eight if you include Amelia Pond and Rory disappearing behind the bushes to make out for no other reason than that they can), a fully charged K-9 and the whole crew of the Shat-Kirk Enterprise doing the warp drive slingshot to solve. A longwinded way of saying that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an amazingly entertaining movie that did what it could and inspired the rest of us to do better. A spooky fun time had by all…

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