Watching this silent masterpiece, I was struck by the fact that I was observing the long dead. These people, performers, were but ghosts enmeshed in celluloid; each playing their part in a plot, which raised complex questions about identity. I couldn’t help wondering how these “shades” from the first quarter of the last century would view their filmic immortality (so to speak) – what if, for example, some essence, something of their very soul had been trapped along with their image on the film? And they still possessed awareness, trapped in those ancient reels of celluloid. As we look in on them, they look out on us!
Wiene’s film “THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI” opens with two men sitting talking. One explains: “Spirits surround us on every side – they have driven me from hearth and home, from wife and child”.
And we know this is a man dispossessed, reflecting the state of a nation, Germany in 1919, crippled by the blight of total war, isolated and friendless, and on the verge of revolution. For it was in 1919 “CABINET” was produced. And many of its themes, dispossession, lust for power over others, sudden death, were comments on the state of the culture from which the film grew.
The second man, the film’s narrator, glances up to see a woman with chalk-white face passing by. “My fiancée,” he explains. (She has been confined to a lunatic asylum after her attempted rape, as you soon discover) “I can tell a story much stranger than yours – ”
And so we are hooked in to this story, in to Caligari’s cabinet, in to the mind of a madman, and his delusional fantasies where reality is no longer as certain as once it may have been. Caligari is both the mad magician in control of Cesare, the somnambulist, and the doctor in charge of the asylum. Cesare kills on Caligari’s command. He attempts the rape of the blank-faced lady (Lil Dagover) and murders her lover. Eventually Caligari is arrested. He is confined in a straitjacket. But wait – the man thought mad is now shown to be sane; the restrained Caligari is now the restrainer of the insane. It is the narrator who is mad, and he is placed in a straightjacket after an unsuccessful attempt to kill Caligari, the head of the asylum.
The film questions reality and our ways of perceiving it. This effect is reinforced by some of the most extraordinary Expressionist sets. We are viewing the fantasies of a mind out of kilter, a mind that reflects upon love and death, rape and domination, good and evil. A mind that reflects the aftershocks and upheaval of a society in transition after bloody war.
And the final words are spoken by Caligari and give hope for us all for the future:
“Now I know how to cure him.”