Review: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
The film with the wonky sets? Yes, the film with the wonky sets – but Robert Wiene’s silent horror landmark has so much more to offer, and that’s never been as apparent as it will be when you watch Eureka Masters of Cinema’s new loaded-up Blu-Ray. As well as a luscious new transfer and a fine selection of new documentaries and commentaries, it also has something that’s guaranteed to be remembered as one of 2017’s most substantial extras – the first UK release of Ruediger Suchsland’s feature-length 2014 documentary From Caligari to Hitler: German Cinema in the Age of the Masses.
We’ll get on to Suchsland’s work in due course, but it’s worth reminding ourselves first how truly great Wiene’s 1919 film is. It is one of the few avant-garde films that seems to be loved by everyone who sees it, partly because its experiments have become so widely imitated. It was not the first horror film – Segundo de Chomón and Georges Méliès had made short films with Gothic or supernatural themes, and J. Searle Dawley made a short 1910 version of Frankenstein for the Thomas Edison Company. But those films, while undeniably fascinating and important, were novelties compared to Wiene’s film. Perhaps Caligari’s true distinction is that it’s the first horror film that truly chills.
In one sense The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is prime Gothic, and its central plot nugget – a mad doctor who uses an entranced, sleepwalking patient to commit murders – is the sort of thing that would have pleased Wilkie Collins. Its treatment, though, is radically new, speaking of the changes that had swept Europe since the heyday of Gothic literature. The writers, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, conceived of the film as an anti-authoritarian story inspired by their experiences during the First World War. Those famously angular sets, too, speak of the time when the film was made. They’re used to represent the unreliable landscape of the central character’s memory, a detail surely inspired by the growing fascination with psychiatry and repressed trauma that swept the world in the aftermath of the Great War.
Wiene clues the audience in to the fact that the sets are an imagined world with a short prologue set in something close to objective reality – a stark woodland scene which could fit nicely into a modern folk horror film. It was this frame story, specifically its resolution at the end of the film, that drove a wedge between Wiene and Janowitz and Mayer, with the writers claiming Wiene’s changes had stripped their story of its insurrectionary politics. It was this ending which drew the attention of Siegfried Kracauer, a Frankfurt school theorist who wrote a hugely influential book in 1947 reinterpreting Dr. Caligari and other Weimar-era German films as a premonition of the horrors to come.
The book was called From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, though Suchsland’s film is not quite an adaptation. Unlike some recent translations of non-fiction bestsellers into documentary form, you never get the feeling that Suchsland is bound to follow Kracauer’s conclusions. Wisely so, as later archive discoveries debunked some of the core elements of Kracauer’s thesis, particularly his contention that Janowitz and Mayer never intended the film to contain any frame story at all. (They did, it was just different to Wiene’s) Kracauer’s central idea, though, still holds merit, and Suchsland treats it with respect. After experiencing his barrage of well-selected clips from German silent movies – some very obscure – it’s hard to disagree with the idea that these films were unearthing something truly disquieting in the national psyche.
You don’t need to see Wiene’s film through this lens; it is, simply, an unforgettable visual experience even if you don’t know Goebbels from gerbils. And those motifs Kracauer saw as having a certain premonitory power weren’t unique to German cinema; Louis Feuillade ensured French movies of the 1910s had their own uncatchable master criminals and sinister hypnotists. But there is something about German silent cinema that feels more fraught, more nightmarish, more intense than what other countries were producing at the same time. It’s the way the angular sets cast the strangest shadows, in the stark, almost Noh-like make-up on Conrad Veidt’s sleepwalker Cesare, in the bulging-eyed, purse-lipped horror on Lil Dagover’s face.
Wiene’s achievements are, of course, his own. He wasn’t a helpless puppet like Cesare; he was an intelligent, forward-thinking film-maker whose ideas were rapturously received at the time and still hold up nearly a century later. But if you love art, you must believe it can reflect real life, real times and places, and the times and places reflected by Wiene’s film were deeply troubled. Not that it necessarily seemed that way at the time. The most heartbreaking stretch of Suchsland’s film comes when he analyses the post-Expressionist cinema of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and finds it full of renewed, optimistic energy and engagement with the real world. Looking at a clip from 1930’s People on Sunday, he notes that these people probably thought of their era as post-War. How were they to know that this was the last moment of peace and unity their country would enjoy for decades?