The Film, Video & Media
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July 21, 2015
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Predicting the Future Thru Film: The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari
by Doniphan Blair
The eponymous Caligari, played by Werner Krauss, reveals his Frankenstein, or somnambulist, Cesare, played by Conrad Veidt, in the movie that broke all rules and even predicted Germany's Nazi future. photo: Decla-Bioscop Studios
From Caligari to Hitler: a Psychological History of German Film, Siegfried Kracauer, Princeton University, 1947, 331 pp, used from $13.00.
"The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari," Robert Wiene’s 1920 silent classic, can be tough sledding for those raised on quick cuts and surround-sound especially if forced to view it in a 9:00 am film history class. Some interest may be sparked by the hallucinatory visuals, the mystical overtones and sex-death motif but students may still doubt the professor’s claim that, "'Caligari' is one of the greatest films of all time!"
In defense of this hyperbole, however, allow me to refer you to "From Caligari to Hitler," Siegfried Kracauer's brilliant exegesis. Not only is "Caligari" a masterpiece, according to Kracauer, a German-Jewish writer and social critic who lived through that period (before escaping to Paris), it is a tour de force collaboration of art and commerce. And it broke ground in horror, impressionism and twist endings.
It also predicted its audience's future by palpating their psyche. Essentially a Rorschach of the German mind, "Caligari" told the story of Hitler as the head of the asylum, the passive German people as the somnambulist Cesare and of the failure of Germany’s intellectuals, who are portrayed by the protagonist Francis.
Seigfried Kracauer was a Frankfurt Jew and critic, which uniquely enabled him to understand the post-modern, mass psychology origins of Nazism. photo: circa 1945 Kracauer collection
Published in 1947, "From Caligari to Hitler" came a tad early after the war for such an ambitious zeitgeist review, prefiguring postmodernism and Marshall McLuhan, although Kracauer was phenomenally well-trained for the task.
As a Frankfurt Jew, he spent the Swinging 20s (which swung like hell there) as Frankfurt’s leading editor and critic, with a special interest in film, which exploded in Germany following World War I, which delayed their adoption. Indeed, Kracauer was a friend and mentor of the famous Jewish-German philosopher, Theodor Odorno, and worked alongside another similar luminary, Walter Benjamin.
Very much their equals, Kracauer authored the well-received studies "The Detective Story," "The Mass Ornament" and "The Salaried Masses," based on his innovative new take on circuses, advertising, and city layout, as well as film. With the rise of the Nazis in 1933, Kracauer moved to Paris, and then to New York, in 1941, where he worked at the Museum of Modern Art and received a Guggenheim scholarship.
“The films of a nation reflect its mentality in a more direct way then other artistic media,” claimed Kracauer. “First, films are never the product of an individual... Second, films address themselves, and appeal, to the anonymous multitude... What films reflect are not so much explicit credos as psychological dispositions."
"Films particularly suggestive of mass desires coincide with outstanding box-office successes," is Kracauer's most incredible revelation. In this way, a successful film does indeed becomes a Rorshach test. Although "Caligari' was not that successful initially in Germany, it is a point well taken today, no matter how much the intellectual critics may ridicule mass market fare.
Kracauer continues with a trenchant critique of our understanding of the true magic of cinema: "That most historians neglect the psychological factor is demonstrated by striking gaps in our knowledge of German history from World War I to Hitler’s ultimate triumph... Thus behind the overt history of economic shifts, social exigencies, and political machinations runs a secret history."
"The disclosure of these dispositions through the medium of the German screen may help in the understanding of Hitler’s ascent and ascendancy.” Certainly, the artistry of Leni Riefenstahl put the Nazi essence on display, while the entire gamut of German cinema did similar for the German people as a whole.
Lil Dagover played Jane, 'Caligari''s love interest and kidnap victim, at the height of her lascivious powers before the Hayes Laws or Puritan propriety could clamp down on the visual sex of cinema. photo: Decla-Bioscop Studios
Germany missed the first big wave of film creativity that swept America and the Allies because it was mired in the trenches of World War I. But, upon return to an uneasy peace, Germans revelled in the new entertainment, flocking to the hundreds of theaters which entrepreneurs were opening.
Of all the arts, film is a full blown industry, hence, a likely place for venture capital. But how best to profit from the consumer’s obviously intense desires?
"UFA", the Weimar Republic’s massive studio, grew out of a wartime propaganda department and was eventually turning out over 500 films annually. Given this, at the war's end, many impresarios read the writing on the wall and began producing films and founding their own smaller studios.
Their market research informed them, as Kracauer noted, that Germans were attracted to romantic, mystical and dark stories—it was the time of Freud, Dadaists and the "War to end all Wars," after all. Within two years of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, this explosive interface of capitalism and art allowed the medium-sized Decla-Bioscop studio to produce an acme of filmic arts.
Ironically, "Caligari" was a blatantly commercial project, intended to crack the lucrative and artier French and American markets. But its poetic pedigree was also monumental.
One co-author, Hans Janowitz, was an actual radical poet from Prague while the other, Carl Mayer, was a fallen aristocrat disowned as a teen for blowing a fortune at Monte Carlo. Mayer ended up working the streets, selling trinkets and acting in peasant theatre. "Caligari", while highly folkloric and archetypal, is also highly autobiographical, as it happened, drawn from lives and issues of Janowitz and Mayer.
The authors of 'Caligari' were Hans Janowitz (left), a radical poet from Prague, and Carl Mayer, a fallen aristocrat who worked the street as a circus performer, among other occupations. photo: Wikipedia
Apparently, Mayer had a bad experience with a psychiatrist his family sent him to while Janowitz once pursued a beautiful girl at a fair, only to lose her in the crowd. When he learned the next day she had been brutally murdered, he ran to tell his friend Mayer and they immediately began writing the first draft of 'Caligari.'. Later, they visited another fair, featuring a hypnotic strong man and completing "Caligari"'s story elements.
The narrative follows Francis, a young man, who sees a barker at a country fair manipulating a somnambulist, which is a person in a catatonic state. Later, his best friend is murdered under spooky circumstances and he suspects the carney barker, following him to the local insane asylum.
Francis is astonished to discover that, in point of fact, he is the institution’s director and is using a deranged patients as the somnambulist. A closer parable for Hitler could not be found.
The word "cabinet" of the film’s title refers to the "coffin" in which the somnambulist sleeps. According to the film's made-up history, the head psychiatrist is researching Caligari, an 18th-century medium, to glean methods for committing the perfect crime. While the somnambulist does his murderous bidding, he places a wax figure in the critical cabinet, thereby obtaining an aliby for the police.
'Caligari' had a happy ending but not the pacifist, anti-authoritarian romantic one its author's wanted. Here, after Caligari is revealed to be the head doctor of the asylum, the film ends with him walking among the inmates. photo: Decla-Bioscop Studios
The original screenplay had a happy ending: Francis exposes the evil doctor (who is arrested) and impresses the father of the girl he fancies, resolving the romantic's classical quest against authority and for love. This was in keeping with Janowitz’s feeling that “the authority that sent millions of men to their death... was bad in itself.”
What Erich Pommer, the head of Decla-Bioscop, saw in this subversive screenplay is not known but he bought it up and assigned his top director, the talented Fritz Lang. Too bogged down with other projects, Lang passed the script to Robert Wiene—another perfect artistic collaborator—the son of a famous, albeit utterly insane, Dresden actor.
Wiene followed Lang’s script doctoring but then rewrote it significantly, meaning the Mayer-Janowitz script enjoy the going of over of two significant talents. Indeed, Wiene added the critical "framing story," which turned Francis into a "faulty narrator," already committed and in an asylum at the beginning of the film—which is revealed in flash back.
Indeed, it is no longer the crazed doctor who is exposed and arrested but Francis who is seized and straightjacketed. Completely reversing the story’s moral, Wiene's rewrite brought understandable protest from Janowitz and Mayer.
Robert Wiene, from a crazed theatre family himself, went on to direct dozens more features but none nearing the impact of 'Caligari,' his first. photo: Decla-Bioscop Studios
What they couldn't realize is that the professional Lang's and Wiene cany audience understanding would make their self-absorbed story more palatable to a wider audience. In addition, instead of simply preaching against the ‘good German,’ it parodied them and prefigured the position of average citizens who awoke one morning fifteen years later to find that Nazis lunatics were running the asylum.
Unfolding like an onion, with layers of meaning, the viewer was obliged to themselves decide who was crazy.
Wiene hired three expressionist painters (one, Hermann Warm, felt that “films must be drawings brought to life”) to fit the design to the script themes. Add great acting, you have a cinematic juggernaut.
The world would have done well to study German cinema a bit closer in the inter-bellum period, Kracauer tells us. Conversely, Decla-Bioscop’s creation of such a psychologically keyed masterpiece testifies to the potential of an art/industry, rational/romantic partnership, as a way of finding narratives at the advanced edge of the general public's dream structure and thereby influencing it.
Kracauer goes on to detail all the cinema art movements and market perturbations in Germany during the 20s and 30s – events that both reflected and effected the German zeitgeist at the time. He concludes with a chilling survey of Riefenstahl, notably her artistically great but narratively perverse "Triumph of the Will" and Goebbels.
About Goebbels, Kracauer notes: “He rejected ‘power based on guns,’ because power that fails to invade and conquer the soul is faced with ever impending revolution... propaganda has ‘to win the heart of the people and keep it’... thus confirm[ing] that Nazi propaganda drew upon all the capacities of the people to cover the void it created.”
In a psychedelicized scene of stupefying proportions, the somnambulist Cesare carries off Jane, but it was not enough to inform Germans' of the impending kidnapping of their country by Uncle Adolph. photo: Decla-Bioscop Studios
Like Hitler, Goebbels was a failed artist, although his fairly well-received modernist novel was much more successful then his boss' paintings. Abandoning literature, he tried to put narrative magic-making at the service of a machine devoid of soul, a contradiction in terms.
"Caligari" is the pinnacle of the German Expressionist cinema that Goebbels tried to cannibalize, although over the longrun it rose above and critiqued him. The film continues to cast its spell, from "Catcher in the Rye," where Holden Caulfield is discovered to be in a mental institution at book’s end, to "Dr. Strangelove," where similar horrific themes were farced up into tragicomedy.
This can lead one to wonder why the studios of today, with all their market research and high-paid talent, can’t find and fund bright-line but deep psychological narratives more efficiently. Although we’ll only know for sure in a couple of decades, it seems the art/industry balance is broken and Hollywood lacks the experiment and enthusiasm that pervaded the German film industry in the 20s.
As Kracauer emphasizes, narrative—what it means, how it works and what it can achieve—is of vital importance to the human family, whether used for ill (and then can be studied) or good. Certainly, new narratives are needed in dealing with the Middle East or right here in the Bay Area, where Oakland is begging for the next iteration of John Singleton’s masterful "Boyz N the Hood" 1991.
But to find such spectacular new narratives (and to get them to their audience) requires all the vision and technical acumen of master film warriors—a noble challenge that just might wake up groggy early-morning film students today, particularly if they get to see "Caligari" with Kracauer’s book or a teacher familiar with the text close at hand.
Posted on Sep 04, 2008 - 01:46 PM