Fair warning, I will be spoiling Robert Weine’s 1920 German Expressionist classic THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI in this blog entry. The film is nearly 100 years old, and you probably already know the story. If you HAVEN’T seen it though, then go do that. Right now. It’s on Netflix. Anyway, enjoy!
Safety is an important thing for people. We all like the security of knowing that, as we go about our daily lives, we have nothing to be afraid of. We, as a people, have conquered the beasts and monsters that may have threatened our great, great ancestors, though we may still tell tales of dragons and trolls and goblins. We never really faced these things, but it is safe to say that there are creatures out in nature that could threaten us. That is why we have doors on our houses. The things that go bump int he night are not meant to open our doors, just as our locks are not meant to be picked. We needn’t fear intruders, because that is what society tells us. Society has rules that keep us safe. A code of conduct that everyone obeys. Heck, even vampires have to be invited in.
But what about when all that breaks down? When someone breaks the rules? When someone tears down the veil that society has created for us to invoke terror? What happens when the person doing this is someone we thought we could trust?
It is for this reason that often the most memorable, and the most terrifying villains in cinema are not fantastical creatures, but men of flesh and blood. Ruthless, thinking, wicked people with desires that put everyone around them in harms way. For this particular blog entry, we’re going back to the silent era, to what is often credited as the first horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The central premise of this film is that a traveling showman, the titular Dr. Caligari, has brought his act, a somnambulist (see: sleepwaker) named Caeser who can read people’s fortunes to a small German village. At night, while the town sleeps, Dr. Caligari sends Caeser out to murder those who have wronged him, to fulfill the predictions of his act, or to simply spread terror.
The townspeople eventually discover that Dr. Caligari is actually the doctor in charge of the local mental institution, who is using a patient to strike fear and panic into the hearts of the townspeople, just as the real Caligari had done centuries prior. His acts of terror seem to have no real reason, no real motivation, other than to terrify. He is a figure of authority with no regard for the people he is meant to protect and watch over. He is more than just a member of the system, he is the system, and he’s using its rules, its regulations, its precautions against itself.
To the modern viewer, Dr. Caligari’s appearance may seem comically evil. Director Robert Weine decided to tell the story with nightmarish details, thus making the film one of the greatest examples of the German Expressionistic style. Everything is exaggerated, the costumes, the sets, the shadows, even the characters themselves. All of these details form together to make a live action cartoon explode on the screen. This heightened reality serves a purpose though. Through embellishment and exaggeration , it allowed the filmmakers to tackle serious social concerns in a more potent way.
Now, I think I should say that I’ve been leaving out an important detail of the film’s plot. The bookends of the film. The whole tale is told by one man to another, sharing his experience. What we learn at the end of film is that the storyteller, our protagonist, and the other characters in the story are all just patients at a mental institution, with the kindly doctor in charge being substituted in the patient’s mind as the evil Caligari. It’s often suggested that this ending, which was not part of the original script, was added to make the film more commercial, and to soften the controversial themes of authority being out of control.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari came out in 1920, a very tumultuous time in Germany’s history. Inflation had rendered the German currency practically useless, the country was paying massive sums out to neighboring countries as reparations for World War I, people starved in the streets.
It’s easy to see how Dr. Caligari’s authority figure gone mad could have been born in this time period. The mad figurehead who tricks the sleeping into murdering the innocent. A villain who spreads false promises in order to gain our trust, only to abuse it. Germany would even see this very thing occur as the Nazi party rose to power, promising false hope, scapegoating minorities to unite a people. It could even be said that the film was prophetic.
It’s in this sense that Caligari is the modern monster, one that doesn’t lurk in the shadows, but in plain sight. How do you stop a creature when it’s in a position of power? How do you keep it away when it can open our doors, pick out locks, and turn neighbor against neighbor in hysteria? To me, that’s far scarier than any dragon, troll, ogre, ghost, or goblin. I’d probably even invite a vampire in before I let Dr. Caligari inside my house.
This has been an entry into the 2016 GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON, hosted by Speakeasy, Silverscreenings, and Shadows and Satin. Check out the other entries here!