If cinema came to be the troubled, fanciful, sensual, neurotic unconscious of human culture in the 20th century, feeding us lurid, wild images and scenarios in response to our twisted inner hungers and greatest fears as we simultaneously feed it history, phobias, narcissism, prejudices, and lust—if then, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is something like the first nightmare, the first cave painting on the dank walls of modernity. One of the most seen and talked-about films ever made, its release instantly transformed the new entertainment medium, already evolved from a novelty into an escapist narrative engine that ran on the octane of semi-conscious empathy, into something new. Or, several somethings: an avant-garde blockbuster bomb, a radical warping of “reality,” a proto-Goth puppet-show critique of postwar trauma. Or: an undeniable visual-attack evocation of how modern, post-traditional civilization feels, not merely how it actually looks.
That last one is the most formidable step into the abyss. German expressionism was born here—while the generalized expressionist credo that the function of art is to manifest the artist’s feelings about her subject and/or the world had already been in play for years in other media, film was still the baby, the beloved bastard offspring of theater and photography. Since it was always uniquely expensive to produce and exhibit, cinema was largely defined by its ability to entertain mass audiences. This gestalt forced most movies to give priority to narrative, to develop the syntax with which to tell stories clearly, simply, and stirringly.
But Modernism had already landed, and Art became not merely a vehicle for entertainment or exaltation or Representationalism as it had traditionally been, but an end unto itself: a higher calling, perhaps among others but surmounted by none. God was dead, and the man-made object, text, or vision became our utmost sublimity. Caligari is where moviegoers saw Modernism’s lightning strike. Here, the modus operandi was basically theatrical, but it is precisely that achievement—the unsettlingly fake Germany the characters walk around in, with its painted shadows and leaning walls and funhouse-mirror doorways and streets that look like cockeyed hallways—that changed everything. Suddenly, an unschooled global audience was confronted with a movie of pure aesthetic intent. As brisk as the pulpy story of Caligari may be, there’s no watching the film and not fathoming the larger statement made in every distinctive frame.
Most famously, that statement has been pegged as a traumatized, embittered view of the world that had just lived through the catastrophe of World War I. Seeing the fundamental physical wrongness of the movie’s universe as a psychological state or as a critique of a modern society turned inside out, or both, still resounds. Caligari’s narrative—the tale of a small Alpine town besieged by a mad carnival doctor and his prophetic, murderous somnambulist—is a Gothic horror movie template, perfectly suited to support claims on our attention made by the film’s visionary conception and what it means. But the screenwriters, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, having first been inspired by a hypnosis sideshow act, were forced to attach a framing device by producer Erich Pommer, who was understandably squeamish about the film and the design team’s revolutionary ideas. Spoiler: the framing scenes present the story as told by the hero, played by Friedrich Fehér, sitting on a park bench, in a context that’s both dreamy and somewhat normal. After Caligari has been caught and the zombie-like Cesare has been eradicated, this park bench is revealed to be part of an asylum’s grounds, and Fehér’s eager storyteller a raving psychopath under the care of the perfectly nurturing Caligari.
You can understand the screenwriters’ reluctance to include this Freudian flourish. (Director Robert Wiene, selected after Fritz Lang passed, is not on record as having cared.) On one hand, the framing story obliterates the statement made by the film’s lurid, hyperbolic design—the sense that postwar society is a fractured, twisted horror—by turning it into the subjective viewpoint of a madman. “Falsifying” was the word Lotte Eisner used. On the other hand, the park bench aside, the framing story in the asylum is shot on the same sets, and brimming with the same design lunacy, as the rest of the film. This slippery but unmistakable fact negates any need for the maniac’s perspective framing setup, dulling its ostensible shock value and cementing the screenwriters’ original intention. The 20th century is still sick in the soul, regardless of the storyteller’s dementia. Or, perhaps Caligari’s physical essence, and whether it represents the point of view of the filmmakers or the characters, is a question best pondered at a haunted remove and left unanswered. Any confusion that arises can only suit this qualmy little film down to its grubbiest greasepaint corners.
Form complements content in ways never seen before, but the content itself was fresh as well. Pathological creepiness with a soup-base of Freudian mystery-solving was already in the cultural mix, of course, but as in Robert Reinert’s Nerven (1919), it was a matter of individual internal torment, some neurosis plaguing the hero or heroine. Caligari was the first film that dared to convert the private dramas and traumas of psychotherapeutic illness into a public object. Suddenly, the maddened landscape of the psychologically wracked becomes the world we’re in, having in reality proven itself capable of self-destruction and irrationality on a humongous scale. Amid other early 20th century shock-of-the-new art movements, cinema’s expressionism awakens us to the possibility of a public pathology—a state of communal lunacy.
The film bears the distinction of piloting this modernist way of seeing while also manifesting a frank terror of the new century’s progress. Even the idea of a “somnambulist” as a subhuman specter trapped in a permanent state of controllable unconsciousness exhibits an old-fashioned distrust of the powers of hypnosis, which had only become well known as a therapeutic tool a few decades earlier. By any standard, Caligari became a vexing paradigm in contemporary culture, and its influence cannot be itemized. The film oversaw a rush of subsequent expressionism that co-opted its pessimistic dread but tempered the visual design with real shadows, detailed miniatures, camera tricks, and semi-realistic sets. Evolving away from Caligari’s extremes, the aesthetic became a lingua franca for ambitious filmmakers everywhere, later for film noir in America and then nearly every nation and genre. Of course, Caligari’s screenplay totems, from the lurking stalker figure to the twist-ending framing device, became so ubiquitous it’s impossible to imagine cinema history, and life, without them.
For such a well-known landmark, Caligari has not been the beneficiary of the greatest achievements in preservation that money can buy. In the heyday of film culture, before home video, Caligari was available in beat-up 16mm TV prints; in the ’80s, every public-domain VHS company put out an edition, stamped from those same timeworn copies. Even the subsequent restorations available since on DVD have been muddy, decayed, and afflicted. Such is the departure from the norm of this new digital restoration, accomplished in 2014 by the F.W. Murnau Foundation and Cineteca Bologna, that the most seasoned Caligarian will find his or her knees weakening in the gaslight of its clarity.
What was once an antique mirror unsilvering before our eyes is now clear as a window, and whatever you decide you miss in terms of ancient tarnish is paltry compared to being able to see the film’s physical universe in stunning detail, as it was seen in 1920. It is a precise and grand tour de force, as conscientious of its effects and intents as any modern blockbuster. This Caligari is essentially a new film experience—if not an entirely new film. The madness lives again.
Presented at Silent Autumn 2014 with live music by Donald Sosin