The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

Director: Robert Wiene

Is there anything really left to say about Caligari after the decades of analysis it’s had foisted upon it and becoming hardened into a cliché of film studies? I don’t know. I watched it tonight (Saturday night) for the first time in probably over a decade (I recall borrowing it on DVD from the TAFE library, which must’ve been 2003), although I’ve “seen” it probably a few times at local goth clubs and similar nights (e.g. this minimal wave thing I was at just a week or so ago) when it’s been the visual accompaniment… I don’t count those, though, only the actual sit-down screenings like tonight. It’s one of those films, though, that I’ve seen so many times and have become so familiar with over the years—indeed, was familiar with just from reading about it well before I first saw it around, when, 1993 I think—that I haven’t forgotten it in the way I forget the details of quite a number of films I go years without seeing again. As such, revisiting it tonight mainly served to point up some details I’d never really picked up on before…

* The guy who plays Alan kind of looks like Matt Smith (a detail I obviously wouldn’t have appreciated before a few years ago);

* There’s something… homoerotic about Caligari’s joy at acquiring Cesare for his work. Or am i just reading it that way?

* This film really benefits from tinting to designate day/night distinctions. Maybe not as necessary as it is for Nosferatu to make sense at times, but still useful.

* And I never really paid any attention to Franzis’ fellow inmate in the last part of the story before, the one he actually relates the story to… that bit in the final scene where Franzis points Cesare out to him in horror, and the other man just has this look on his face like “fuck this guy, what a lunatic” and gets the hell away from him. Almost a moment of levity that I only picked up on tonight for some reason.

Also, someone said once that the real problem with the infamous “frame” narrative—allegedly devised by none other than Fritz Lang, who was originally supposed to direct the film, and which was supposed to neuter the intended political subtext of the story by revealing it as a madman’s delusion—actually fails because, really, even without it it’s easy to view Franzis’ story, or at least his own role in it, as a delusion of grandeur. (He does seem to find it awfully easy to assert himself over the authorities and gain access to things a regular private citizen would never get near.) Watching the film tonight made me realise that perspective has some validity; that framing device complicates the film far more than the conventional story of the film’s making suggests.

As for the film itself, it probably seems like more of a museum piece than anything else; the radicalism of its “expressionist” stylings was pretty much a function of its point in history, so it’s probably more tied to 1919-20 than, say, Nosferatu is to 1921-22. And, pretty much since its first release, it’s been the subject of analysis and argument to a degree where I don’t know if it’s still possible to treat it as a living film rather than a historical moment. (Cos it didn’t leave much real progeny, did it? Not in the way The Golem directly influenced the early 30s Hollywood horrors. Cf. Robert Wiene’s own next film, Genuine, which looks more like a parody of what he did in Caligari than a building upon it.) Still, those “expressionist” aspects make for a pretty good focus of attraction even now, of course, there’s still something fascinatingly weird and disturbing about them nearly a hundred years later. If, as I suggested, the film is a cliché of film history, let’s remember things like this become clichés for a reason, and even now there’s something iconic about many parts of the film. Even if certain of the participants disagreed for decades over exactly who was responsible for what, the overall achievement was still pretty remarkable…

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