Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

This might be the movie that inspired the careers of Tim Burton and M. Night Shyamalan.

Realism in film is overvalued. True, there are many movies in which a realistic approach or style is best, but too often, realism is held up as a virtue in and of itself. If movies are escapism, then they don't need to be burdened by the notion they must be realistic.

Horror movies, more so than other genres, are free to break the rules of reality in the pursuit of terror and fear. Like nightmares, horror films don't have to make much sense so long as they are scary. That brings me to one of the most influential movies of all time: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari begins as a young man named Francis explains what recently happened to himself and his fiance Jane. In their hometown of Holstenwall, a fair brought with it Dr. Caligari and Cesare, a somnambulist who supposedly has been asleep all his life. The doctor's arrival coincided with a number of strange, mysterious murders.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari arrived from Germany and is regarded as the most important films of German Expressionism, the artistic movement that depicted the inner, subjective, mental and emotional states of its characters, often representing those (usually distorted) states through the characters' surrounding environments. Visual hallmarks of the genre include harsh shadows, skewed camera angles, jagged lines, and strange shapes, all of which can be found in Caligari.

The only things that aren't artificial in Caligari are the human actors. Everything else is obviously phony: the town, the buildings, the streets, etc. Everything was built on a stage and in no way resembles plausible, realistic objects. The town looks like a children's play set. Buildings are out of proportion, backgrounds look to be painted on the walls, and even the trees have spiked leaves.

Yet, the movie suggests not "fakeness" but rather another level of reality, a warped, disorienting fantasy world shaped by the delusions of its characters. Caligari frequently uses iris shots, surrounding everything but one point of focus with black, controlling our attention (often, a shot closes in around the deranged face of the doctor). This technique offers the idea that outside of what these characters perceive, there is nothing. The film is located entirely within their own little world, literally and figuratively.

Caligari is one of those movies scholars love to dissect the meaning of. Is Francis insane, as the ending suggests, or has Caligari won? What about the subtext? Is Caligari, a doctor who uses a hypnotized killer to do his bidding, a prediction for Hitler and the rise of Nazism, a movement that seemingly brainwashed Germany into ignoring its conscience? What would Sigmund Freud have to say about how Cesare "rises" as he moves after Jane?

Like many silent films of the era, Caligari uses a lot of long static shots. The camera doesn't move at all, and there are few editing cuts within a scene, which makes the movie feel slower than modern films. Nor would I call the movie frightening or scary, at least not by today's standards.

What Caligari has going for it is a sense of unease, an atmosphere of creeping dread, a feeling of the bizarre, and that can't be masked by over-the-top, silent era mugging, staid pacing, or poor surviving film prints.

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