Catching Up: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

We all have gaps in our cinematic knowledge, films which, if we confess our ignorance of, someone, somewhere will say, “How have you not seen that?!” Catching Up is about these films, and viewing them so long after seemingly everyone else has. Some of these entries may be shocking, some are embarrassing, but all of them are classics.

The Film:

Directed by Robert Wiene, released in Germany in 1920 and the United States in 1921. A man (Friedrich Feher) tells the story of his duel with the sinister sideshow performer Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his murderous, sleepwalking servant Cesare (Conrad Veidt).

Wait, you really haven’t seen this?

From what I’ve been told, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a staple of basic film school screenings, so I don’t know how it was never shown to me in a class. It’s floated around my Netflix queue for years, and I kept promising that I’d get around to it sooner or later. It finally became “sooner.”

The Legacy:

This was one of the first horror movies, and tremendously formative for the storytelling and visual conventions of the genre. It’s the cornerstone of German Expressionism in film. It features some of the earliest usage of a framing story and twist ending in cinema. It’s still widely regarded as one of the greatest, most influential pieces of the Silent Era. Hundreds if not thousands of subsequent works of art have paid homage to it, both subtly (Shutter Island) and overtly (half of Tim Burton’s oeuvre).

What did you know about it beforehand?

This is one of the movies that everyone has “seen” in a thousand things, whether or not they’ve ever seen the movie itself. Just as one example, as the originator of German Expressionist Cinema, Caligari is directly responsible for the look of Metropolis, which is subsequently responsible for the look of a good deal of science fiction for the past near-century. The unreality of Expressionism was the first time that filmmakers truly understood and exploited film’s potential as an art form for transporting audiences.

You can even trace the basic rhythm of a suspense scene back to this movie. The way that Wiene builds anticipation, piling one action after another until the audience can’t take it anymore, is the same way that filmmakers do it today, at least in principle. In one scene, Cesare stalks ever so slowly towards a sleeping woman. As he draws closer, raises his knife, and we see that his victim is completely heedless, the hairs on the backs of our necks raise. Perhaps it doesn’t scare the modern public, which has seen a million variations on this scene now, but think of the way the original audience would process it. They probably shat themselves a little.

But while the aesthetic imprint of this film is everywhere, the details of its story haven’t filtered through popular consciousness nearly as much. I knew that the plot had something to do with sleepwalking, and that’s about it. So in many ways I was going in to Caligari blind just as much as I was going in knowing everything about it.

Did what you know matter?

When watching older films, there’s often a compulsion for film aficionados to view it from an academic remove, rather than actively engage with it. I confess that I found myself falling into this more than once while watching Caligari. The style of silent film is so philosophically divergent from contemporary style that even I, the film lover, confess to sometimes being bored by it. It’s much slower, more deliberate, and more theatrical than what we’re used to. Without being able to viscerally connect to a movie, we can only “appreciate” it, rather than truly “enjoy” it, if that makes sense.

That being said, the look of this film is so striking and captivating, it often demands your full attention. To add to the “firsts” I’ve listed for this movie, it was one of the first to make extensive use of special sets and background paintings. It doesn’t look “real,” but it’s not supposed to. The story revolves around a man who sleeps without ever truly waking, and the film really feels like a dream. The use of such angular, eerie shapes creates an almost aggressive sense of unreality. I can only imagine what an early 20th century audience would have felt walking into something like this. If you can look past how much Tim Burton’s aesthetic will pop unbidden into your mind when seeing it, the imagery in Caligari is more than enough to sustain your interest.

Did anything surprise you?

I remember that I read about the story’s twist at some point, but it was so long ago that I’d forgotten it. I didn’t guess it beforehand, but I also don’t actively try to “outwit” a film, so someone else might easily see it coming. What interested me was all the twists and turns the plot takes before it gets to that final reveal. We often tend to think of silent films as willfully simple and not challenging, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Caligari is the kind of movie you can show someone to demonstrate the depth of narrative complexity early cinema was capable of achieving.

So, did it live up to the hype?

In a way, yes. And in a way, no. Like I was talking about before, I was able to appreciate Caligari, but I couldn’t really like it, for the most part. Even the twist ending has been done so many times since that I could only nod my head and say “I see” to it, instead of being shocked. It’s not the film’s fault at all; it’s mine for not getting to it sooner. This is the kind of movie we should be showing to kids. Maybe that sounds counter-intuitive, since this is a horror film in which people are murdered, but nothing in it is worse than the average video game a child will play, or even the books they’re already required to read. If we encouraged appreciation of great film the same way we do appreciation of great literature, fewer important works like this would slip through the cracks. Until then, too many will only be able to appreciate them. And I’d much rather love a movie than appreciate it.

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