Blog Directory CineVerse: Unlocking "The Cabinet" and its deliciously dark secrets

Unlocking "The Cabinet" and its deliciously dark secrets

Sunday, February 9, 2020

It's only fitting that a classic of world cinema and a horror movie touchstone turning 100 years old this month--"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"--continues to cast a long and pervasive shadow of inspiration over filmmakers all these decades later. Arguably, it's the most influential film ever made. That's quite a boast, but we've got evidence (which we discussed last Wednesday at CineVerse) to back up that claim. Intrigued? Read on.

Why is “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It’s a timeless work of artistry, imagination, and creativity that proved highly influential.
  • It is so well preserved for being a 100-year-old film, which speaks to the care and attention it has received as a lasting masterpiece of world cinema.
  • It’s fun to trace the film’s inspirations and influences—to examine the movie and imagine how future filmmakers would have been motivated to emulate the look, feel, and design of this film and its characters.
  • It’s fascinating to explore the political underpinnings of this movie, the statements it made about Germany and its people at the time of its release, and the subtextual commentary that appears prescient about the future of post-World War I Germany.

In what ways was this film influential on cinema and popular culture or set trends?

  • Many consider this the first true feature-length horror film and among the first cinematic works of expressionism—a subgenre of films originated in Germany that featured highly exaggerated and stylized sets with strange, twisted angles in which the feelings and mood of the characters or vibe of a location are externalized and reflected in the physical environment. Other expressionistic films to follow include "Nosferatu," "The Last Laugh," "Metropolis," and "M."
  • This had an undeniably massive impact on horror films, film noir, and fantasy movies. Consider the horror and science-fiction children it spawned: “Nosferatu,” “The Man Who Laughs,” “ Metropolis,” “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mummy,” “The Black Cat,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “Son of Frankenstein,” “Night of the Hunter. Think of how it inspired noir films in their use of shadow, canted angles, and stylized sets and lighting. Ruminate on how it fired up the imagination of Tim Burton in movies like Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Batman Returns.
  • Ponder the many horror tropes and conventions it advances that we see echoed in later movies, including:
    • The mad scientist and his experiment (picked up later in “Frankenstein”)
    • Beauty and the beast (instead of killing the girl, Cesare falls in love with her and carries her away, much like Kong does in “King Kong”)
    • The monster on the loose threatening the community (“The Wolf Man,” “Frankenstein”)
    • The nocturnal fiend who must return to his resting place before dawn (“Dracula,” “The Wolf Man”)
    • Zombies and the living dead (“Night of the Living Dead”)
    • The serial killer “slasher” film (“The Lodger,” “The Leopard Man,” “Psycho”)
    • The thriller with a shock/twist ending (“Psycho,” “Diabolique”).
  • Additionally, Caligari is regarded as the first movie to provide a subjective simulation of events shown. Instead of going for realism, as most films had up to this point, Caligari presents an emotionally abstract, skewed, slanted, and personalized point of view.

What’s the moral of the story here? What themes or messages are explored in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”?

  • Gullibility and naiveté. This film serves as a metaphor for the German nation and its people after losing World War I. Caligari represents the German government and its war machine embodied in a puppet master who can control his subject—Cesare, a stand-in for the sleepwalking populace who easily fell under the spell and false promises of German leaders and who were, as soldiers, brainwashed into being mindless killers in World War I. German film theorist Siegfried Kracauer theorized that the film predicted the rise of Hitler—in the form of Caligari—who would emerge to fill the subconscious need among Germans for a dictator and authoritative tyrant.
  • The thin line between sanity and insanity and the subjective nature of reality. Everything we see in the film is questionable once we learn that the narrator—Francis—is himself a lunatic in an asylum; his testimony is now unreliable. The man we thought was murderously mad, Dr. Caligari, is actually the asylum director, which promotes an ironic message: The inmates are running the asylum.
  • Duality: the dual nature of human beings.
    • Caligari has two sides—he’s a respected leader of a mental institution in the opening and closing, but a crazy manipulator in the main story.
    • Cesare can be seen as both a victim and a perpetrator, as both a heartless monster and a man who falls in love with the woman he intended to kill.
    • Francis appears as a heroic protagonist who seeks the truth and learns Caligari’s dark secret, yet he proves to be a mental patient.
    • The fair itself has both a light and fun side as well as a dark, dangerous side once Caligari is introduced.
  • According to Kracauer, the film’s central message is that the soul must reckon with either tyranny or chaos, either of which can thwart the ability to overcome authoritarian rule. “The narrative implications of the story…showed a distinctly postwar fear about how a privileged class could rise up and take authority over the state,” wrote blogger Kevin Kryah.

What is this film’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • The story remains impressive and not easily outguessed.
  • The filmmakers do an excellent job of thickening the plot, covering their tracks well, using misdirection, and preventing the viewer from quickly predicting what will happen. For example, merely showing the killer’s shadow (without revealing his identity) and then introducing the subplot about the criminal who is arrested and blamed for Cesare’s murders makes us question who’s committing the crime. Showing us what Francis sees—the apparent figure of Cesare sleeping in the box—causes us to wonder what’s going on. And the disclosure of Caligari as the head of the asylum, where Cesare (or someone who looks like him) is an inmate, pulls the rug out from under our collective feet.
  • The concluding twist remains interesting and unexpected; it’s rare to see a 100-year-old silent film turn on a dime so quickly and shockingly by the denouement, when it’s revealed that Francis is not to be trusted as a narrator and everything we’ve previously seen is now in doubt.
  • “Caligari” continues to be thought-provoking and unsettling. It conjures up intriguing questions, like:
    • Is it possible that Francis was telling the truth about Caligari? Did Caligari have Francis committed to the asylum to conveniently shut Francis up and cast him as an unreliable witness?
    • Who is the truly insane person: Francis or Caligari? And who’s crazier: the mad leader or the ones who follow him?
    • Has Francis possibly committed the murders that he blames on Caligari and Cesare?
    • How much of perceived reality can be trusted?
    • How easy is it for the common person to fall under the spell of a Caligari or, for that matter, the government or its leaders?
    • Does the wraparound story dilute the central message by easily explaining away that this was all the vision of an insane person, or does the wraparound infuse the film with a cynicism that still resonates today?
  • The movie is entirely unique, and though its look and design have been imitated and honored, it’s never been duplicated. Yes, we can see its influences on later horror and noir pictures, but the visuals and aesthetics of this film are one-of-a-kinds.

  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP