Why did people from the 1880s-1920s all look so severely malnourished in photos? Don’t believe me? What about the gaunt cheeks, darkened eyes and all-round stony expressions?
It was lazy thoughts like “everyone looks like they are 1/8 zombie” that really struck me when watching The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. As a film approaching its 100th birthday, I think there’s relatively little of academic merit I can add to the already sizeable body of work written on it. This isn’t going to be a real reckoning with one of the masterpieces of German Expressionist cinema—it’s going to be a series of layperson’s observations on watching movies from the “olden days” (though I reckon I might touch on Hitler and the film’s symbolism a little bit later).
So yeah. Most of the characters in Caligari look pretty vampiric a lot of the time, which only heightens the very, very creepy atmosphere of the film. I’m sure that when people in Germany and further afield watched it in the 20s it was already a spooky movie, but watching it now, with the added mythos of history as an extra filter on it, small considerations like the very different acting style of the silent era and the contemporary dress serve to heighten the abject weirdness of the film.
Asylums were already unnerving places without every actor having to exaggerate their reactions by making themselves wide-eyed, screaming silently and spluttering; Werner Krauss would already look menacing in his dark cape and huge top hat without the stark shadows of black and white to swathe him. And that’s not even mentioning the set design, which is dagger-like and as twisted as the film’s narrative (literally: Caligari has one of the earliest twist endings in cinema, ever), and to which thousands of words have been dedicated elsewhere. The age of this film only serves to make it more dark, weird and twisted by comparison to modern blockbusters and cookie-cutter horror films.
Of course, certain elements have been updated for the modern viewer. The soundtrack is modern, and the slides on which the characters’ speech is displayed during the film are in English in the version I watched. There’s an odd connection between the viewer and those on-screen that erases a lot of the historicity, too: one is acutely aware that these are the first people who are long-dead who we can nonetheless see moving and gesturing.
That’s a relatively new phenomenon, when compared to, say, oil paintings of individuals or even photographs. Though we get it a lot now with actors who either day or are very old (it’s odd to think of the living, breathing Emmanuelle Riva in Hiroshima, Mon Amour is the same person as the elderly woman in Amour, but it’s even more disconcerting to realize she died in January and these are the main records—albeit very accurate and lifelike records—of her existence), this notion is even stronger with a film produced when film was in its infancy. Were they aware that 97 years later, people would still watch The Cabinet of Dr Caligari? That it would outlast them? Probably, yes—but I reckon only in the very back of their minds.
It’s odd. These are people for whom Victorian culture (or the German equivalent) would have been as familiar as the 70s is for us, and yet we can see them walking, breathing, acting on-screen. And indeed, elements of the Romantic and the Gothic do creep into the film: a preoccupation with both mental illness and the occult, and a format in which the majority of the story is recounted to a stranger, much in the same manner as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or an epistolary novel like Dracula.
That said, it was also a highly modern, relevant film for the time (this is perhaps stating the obvious). Most notably a Weimar film that acted as an analogy for the dangers of militarism and authority in the immediate years post-World War I, with Dr Caligari representing the army/government/Kaiser/authorities and his murderous hypnotized servant the generation lost to the war, the film has also been posited as an early indicator of Germany’s national psychological need for a strong authority figure—namely, Adolf Hitler.
I don’t really buy this. It’s a stereotype of Germany that has been popularized for over a century, and I think there is as much of an iconoclastic, revolutionary and anti-establishment vein to German history and culture that is as prevalent as the “Germans are ruthlessly efficient and need to control everything” narrative. Recently, that narrative has come to the fore, what with all the shit the EU is in; it’s easy to peddle but to me, it’s lazy, and often relies on confirmation bias.
What is true is that The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is both a cornerstone and a crowning achievement of German Expressionism; a distinctly anti-Nazi movement with a dark and often absurd Weltanschaaung in opposition to the rosy-cheeked Aryan vision of Germany that National Socialism aimed to promote. This a film where monsters live in the woods, where you don’t stray from the path or enter the fortune-teller’s tent for fear of the occult and the unknown. It’s a direct descendant of the Northern European Brothers Grimm-esque fairytales where hubris leads to punishment and even the good can be undone by weird fate. It’s a film with immense influence and impact, and everyone ought to watch it. Except, perhaps, Tim Burton fans. Because their respect for his originality will be severely diminished.