By Megha Sequeira
VANCOUVER — The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari innocently opens amidst a garden, where we, the unassuming audience, find Francis. This all-around protagonist and young man is recounting events recently endured by him and his fiancée, Jane—more horrifying, in fact, than the meeting of the couples’ parents. We soon discover that Francis is recalling his time at the county fair, where Jane, his friend Alan, and himself are urged to enter the tent of Dr. Caligari, a shrouded figure whose act consists of a large crypt-shaped cabinet. In it resides a somnambulist he controls at will. Despite being asleep for 25 years, Cesare, Caligari’s sleep-walking minion, has awoken with the power to see into the future. When Alan challenges Cesare on when he will die, Cesare declares that he will be dead before dawn. Later, Alan and Francis are unshaken but Jane is shown to be deeply affected by Cesare’s predictions and when Alan is indeed found dead the next morning, all roads lead to Dr. Caligari.
Widely regarded as the archetypal piece of German Expressionist cinema, Caligari contains aspects of artistic nuance coupled with characteristics of film noir, still a novelty in 1920. The expressionist style features intangible twists and curvatures, and light that bends and bounces as if telling its own version of the story. Shadows and streaks play pivotal roles, tossing out the ideas of visual propriety and steady cinematography that had become the epitome of black and white cinema. Sharp forms make their appearances alongside spiralling streets and towering structures, questioning the viewer’s depth perception while tilted walls and windows close in all around. Cubist homages to the greats like Picasso abound in the crammed nature of the buildings and door frames, as well as angular wall hangings and geometric trees, cutting through the air and filling the viewer with anticipation of the mystery lying just ahead.
Much like Cesare with the death of Alan, the film has been thought to foreshadow the darkest period in German history: WWII and the rise of authoritarianism alongside Adolf Hitler. Exploring themes of unquestionable obedience to authority, Caligari had critics quickly liken Cesare to Germany’s soldiers under the reign of the Third Reich, with one popular German writer, Siegfried Kracauer, drawing direct parallels between Caligari and Hitler. Playing with perceptions of reality and the viewer’s point of view in the ways in which it presents the storyline, you will, perhaps, for a brief period of time, see the film’s dramatic and eclectic shapes and music as much more real than the reality you are accustomed to.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is playing at The Cinematheque on November 12 with a live musical accompaniment.BC, British Columbia, Cinematheque, silent film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari