The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Directed by Robert Wiene

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of those films that begins every Film School 101 course overview, along with films like Citizen KaneRear WindowNosferatu, an Ingmar Bergman or two, Chinatown, and Battleship Potemkin.  It might be easy to dismiss a film like this if only because it’s so damn influential, also like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.  It’s not so much a single film as a manifesto of what’s to come.  From the nature of the story, the visual language and even a connection to social history, this film is almost overwhelmingly important.  It’s like oxygen, we don’t think about it, but we benefit from it every day, so I get why it’s in all those film school courses.

This is, as far as I know, the first example of German Expressionism, the first “horror” film and the first film to actively reject any attempt to recreate reality, choosing instead a hyper-stylized, subjective perspective.  That visual aesthetic would inspire so many later films from films noir, with the oblique angles and darkness (The Third Man, 1949) to the painted shadows (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961) to the disproportionate shapes and sharp angles (pretty much every Tim Burton film).  It’s as if the proper set had been mistakenly dropped in a blender and then hastily reassembled.

The film is framed by two men sharing a story.  We then dive into that story, in which a mysterious Dr. Caligari sets up shop at a fair and reveals Cesare, alleged to have been asleep ever since he was born, two and a half decades before.  Dr. Caligari allows the audience to ask any question of the young, sleeping man whom he will awake.  A man asks when he is to die, and Cesare responds that it’ll be the following morning.  He’s correct, and it’s Cesare who kills him.

It’s Dr. Caligari who controls Cesare, through hypnosis, and in the end he will be found out and restrained.  Except that once this story concludes we return to the framing device, the two men on a bench talking and realize that the entire story was a delusion.  Dr. Caligari is in reality the director of an asylum at which the storyteller, the friend of the man at the fair killed by Cesare, is a patient.

The entire film is subjective, strongly suggested by the visual aesthetic, in which nothing resembles reality, and everything looks both claustrophobic and sharp.  It instead feels like we’re walking around inside the mind of, well a lunatic, and we are.

At the same time, remaining within this story within a story, there’s something fascinating about the basic device of having the active antagonist be an innocent person controlled (or hypnotized) by the true villain.  Dr. Caligari, it’s been written, is to Hitler what Cesare is to the German people, and thus the film predicted the rise of the Nazi party.  Or maybe it didn’t, but the parallels are clear, even if just in hindsight.

But this type of mind control is now remarkably common in movies, perhaps just because it adds an extra fold to the plot and gives the protagonist more to do.  It’s not that they have to discover and stop the active antagonist but then, once they succeed, to move onto the “final boss,” the real villain.  This is neatly set up for a three act film, with the act two climax dealing with the movie poster villain and the third act dealing with the villain behind closed doors.

It’s there in Toy Story 3, for example, when Lotso resets Buzz Lightyear to his factory setting and turns him against his friends.  It’s also in Captain America: The Winter Soldier with brainwashed Bucky.  In both instances the heroes stop their friend turned enemy and turn him back into a friend, so that they can team up and pursue the bigger evil forces at play.  There’s even a version of this in Iron Man 3 in which the advertised villain, the Mandarin, turns out to be a hired actor (Ben Kingsley), with the true villain later to be revealed.

These stories, when you boil them down to their basics, imply that the real fight is not the one we immediately engage in.  Not only must the forces of evil be stopped, but the hero must learn how to stop those forces.  Oftentimes the person to be fought isn’t much different than a friend.  In a sense, don’t hate the player, hate the game.

I suppose it’s a playful mockery of most movie conflicts because the thing that divides previously mortal enemies turns out to be easily mollified, as if all Batman and the Joker need to do is attend a few rounds of couples’ therapy.

It also suggests that even the things that drive people to do the most destructive things can be eradicated.  Ideologies can be erased or evolved, no matter how tied someone may seem to be to that mode of thought.  We are capable of change and evolution.

In every day life we may not be hypnotized or brainwashed by such things, but perhaps we’re not far off.  It’s not always obvious to us how we are influenced by the ideas and voices adding input to our overarching worldview.

Up Next: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Rio Bravo (1959), Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans (1927)

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