Robert Wiene's Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari is a truly weird movie, not in the sense of a tame unconventionality or a comfortable quirkiness, but in the sense of attempting to capture a piece of the deep, dark, eldritch world that lives within the psyche of every human being, especially children, manifesting itself in half-remembered nightmares, Grimm fairy tales, or the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. It is not a safe world, and that is its attraction. It is murky, mysterious, and potentially deadly. Nothing is what it seems.
Caligari, as its opening title says, is "A Modern representation of an 11th century myth in which a Mountebank monk bears a strange and mysterious influence over a Somnambulist." This is a bit misleading, however, as the "11th century myth," as well as the "Modern representation" surrounding it are creations of the screenwriters, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. The film features a young man, Francis (Friedrich Feher), confined to a mental institution and telling a story of whose truth the audience can never be quite certain. The story, presented by Francis as autobiographical, is about the time that the fair came to his town of Holstenwall, and the events that followed it, events spurred by the traveling showman Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt).
Largely due to the bold, imaginative, stark sets, makeup, and other production design, by artists Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig and designer Hermann Warm, the whole of Caligari is told in a highly expressionistic style nearly completely uncharacteristic of anything before seen on film. Caligari is intended to throw the audience off-balance, to bring it into another world. It accomplishes this ably.
This characteristic poses questions. Is the film what it is on its surface? Is Francis a madman who has concocted the story? Or is it yet again reversed, with the framing device an epilogue which illustrates how corrupt power protects itself? Or, again, can any part of the story be believed? Could some aspects be true and others false? Suddenly placing the character played by Krauss, whom we have come to see as utterly mad, back in charge of the asylum and bringing Cesare back to gentle life is enough of a twist that, no matter what particular plane of reality the story is supposed to be on, the same questions are raised, and even in much more unsettling, obscure ways.
The speculations produced in the minds of the audience have the same effect as the scenery: they put everything off-balance. No one can be trusted. In this way, the message about crippling power and the nature of authority is even stronger because of its actual mentally disorienting quality. It is indeed an interesting effect for a film to produce. It is the aim of Expressionism. Not only is the audience meant to be initially disoriented and confused, but every aspect of an Expressionist film, literally, an Expressionist world, is to bring the audience back by the end of the experience so that they begin to feel that the world that they have been immersed in is as weirdly familiar as the world they have entered from. It is a world of the mind.
The acting, sets, makeup, and direction of Caligari all aim toward the same goal. Werner Krauss is menace itself as Caligari. Veidt is pure malleable nothingness, with all of the evil that produces. This acting is the kind of acting that leaves deep grooves in the brains of the audience. No one else can ever reproduce the roles completely effectively. And yet, a mere suggestion of the roles can bring back the total film experience and can become shorthand for the concepts they represent--power and control, the powerful and the controlled.
Caligari, in the end, is probably a flawed masterpiece, but the flaws have their own particular shine so that the suggestion that they could have been hidden or removed would be anathema to the experience the audience goes through in viewing it. The ambiguities, contradictions, and confusions are part of the reason that Caligari survives as a relevant work.
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