The Mindful Bard – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Long Day’s Journey into a Disturbed Collective Unconscious

Film: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

Director: Robert Wiene
Writers: Carl Mayer And Hans Janowitz
Restoration: Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, Wiesbaden

“There are spirits everywhere. They are all around us. They have driven me from hearth and home? from wife and child.”
– Narrator, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The above lines pretty much sum up the sense of trauma and alienation that afflicted post-war Germany in 1920. German Expressionism, a movement that had begun with painting, was now experimenting with the medium of film, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is now recognised as the first and most spectacular example of expressionism in film. It’s since become essential viewing in many film studies courses and part of the canon of movies that have influenced the style and substance of the art form.

It’s not an easy flick to watch, and you might want to follow it with the feel-good flick of the season, if not therapy. In one Portlandia episode, for example, a mail deliverer strikes up a conversation with a young female resident, a fellow movie buff, on her choice of Netflix disks. He insists she watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. She has no interest in serious, disturbing films, but after repeated nagging, she watches it and actually likes it. This frees the deliverer from a curse; now She’s the mail deliverer. He gets his old life back but She’s doomed to keep delivering mail until she can break the spell by getting someone else to watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

And yes, those of us who’ve seen it are mysteriously doomed to pressure others to watch it too. So here goes.

Even though it was first released in 1920, the cultural relevance of Caligari as well as its recent return to public scrutiny via the restoration of the original camera negative to 4k quality (the latest development in digital film technology?a horizontal resolution of more than 4000 pixels) qualifies it for a Mindful Bard recommendation.

The first and last scenes have a natural setting?the deliciously morbid late autumn garden of a palatial building. But sandwiched in between we find a bizarre nightmare; the characters move in and out of a set that Dr. Seuss might have designed had he been a nihilist; street, carnival, bedroom?all are like the house that Jack built, crooked and jagged with light and shadows painted on, the perspective all awry. (I do hope some avant garde filmmaker will see the aesthetic?and budgetary?value of this kind of set and reinterpret it in his or her next film.)

The opening shots are like nothing else you’ve ever seen: gothic, enigmatic, and full of atmosphere. You see the exaggerated acting you expect of silent films, and yet each character communicates a level of authenticity, allowing a gritty intensity to peep through (when the narcoleptic Cesare awakens, his regard is absolutely jarring).

In the opening scene the young Francis is sitting in the garden with a man who looks like a clergyman. A beautiful girl in a white dress glides by in a daze. Francis says this girl was his fiancée, and he begins to explain to his companion how she became transformed into this wraithlike apparition.

In perhaps the first flashback in film history Francis and his friend Alan visit a local carnival. They encounter the hypnotist Dr. Caligari, who keeps the somnambulist Cesare in a coffin, only waking him up to demand that he tell the future to paying fairgoers. Cesare predicts that Alan will be dead by dawn. That night Alan is murdered in his bed.

The murderer can’t really be held to account because he’s insane. Like the horror movies that have appeared since, this flick gets all the facts wrong about the mentally ill and exploits society’s fears of psychotic behaviour; nonetheless the film wisely observes that madness can be overcome only when its source and origins are brought to light, where it can be trapped, examined, and disarmed by reason.

This seems to be something that Germans, and Europeans in general, needed to think about at this time (whether they did so is another question). It’s almost as if the German artistic sensibility, destabilised by the recent shock of World War I, felt driven to explore its own common unconscious in order to regain some balance.

The result is slightly prophetic, and the film makes reference to prophecy within itself by making of the somnambulent Cesare a kind of prophet. Dr. Caligari uses hypnosis to create a kind of zombie slave out of Cesare, in much the same way European fascists were soon to start using propaganda to get “nice” people to perform, or at least permit, atrocious acts against fellow citizens.

At the same time the film raises the question of moral accountability. Who, after all, is really committing these murders, and how can he be held accountable? The twist in the ending throws all such philosophical musings to the winds.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari manifests six of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.

– It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
– It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
– It stimulates my mind.
– It gives me artistic tools.
– It makes me want to be a better artist.
– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.