Examining works in the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, this essay focuses on Robert Wiene’s post–World War I film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and other German Expressionist films, available for viewing in the Walker’s Bentson Mediatheque.
Consider the moment: it is 1920, and recovery from the war has been slow. As the Weimar Republic adjusts to peacetime, Berlin recoils. Power is still out in much of the city. Returning troops and refugees flood the streets, and markets are short on food. Unlike the war to follow, which claimed an ethno-nationalist and populist raison d’être, World War I had no clear moral or political objective; to the contrary, the internecine conflict emerged from a series of geopolitical alliances turned sour, aligning the interests of the wealthy, ruling elite with the colonial state—at the expense of a generation. Psychologically, the Germans were still very much in the trenches, and the trauma of mustard gas, artillery, barbed wire, and millions dead was not assuaged by the Treaty of Versailles, the agreement that required Germany to bear the costs of the war.
The controversial Article 231, or “War Guilt Clause,” affirmed the Central Powers’ responsibility in causing the catastrophe of the first modern war and, in doing so, sidestepped the Allied Powers’ own culpability in the violence. Literary critic and historian Paul Fussell describes the feeling as one of dissociation:
“Our own death is indeed unimaginable,” Freud said in 1915, “and whenever we make the attempt to imagine it we can perceive that we really survive as spectators.” It is thus the very hazard of military situations that turns them theatrical. And it is their utter unthinkableness: it is impossible for a participant to believe that he is taking part in such murderous proceedings in his own character. The whole thing is too grossly farcical, perverse, cruel, and absurd to be credited as a form of “real life.” Seeing warfare as theater provides a psychic escape for the participant: with a sufficient sense of theater, he can perform his duties without implicating his “real” self and without impairing his innermost conviction that the world is still a rational place.1
When confronted with the macabre reality and aftermath of the war, however, the director Robert Wiene eschewed rationality. His cinema was rather dominated by a collapsing dialectic of madness and medicine, discoursing through film a nation in need of psychic healing—particularly evident in his most celebrated film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
The eponymous Dr. Caligari is the director of a mental institution who seizes upon the vulnerability of Cesare, a somnambulist whose delicate mental state renders him susceptible to manipulation. The story opens with Caligari presenting Cesare as a spectacle at the fair; in a trance, Cesare is capable of omniscience and fields questions from the crowd. A man named Alan asks how long he will live, and Cesare ominously responds, “until the break of dawn.” The prophesy weighs heavy on Alan, especially in light of the murder of the town clerk that occurred just the night before. The next morning, his friend Francis discovers that Alan has been murdered—unbeknownst to him, by Cesare, under the spell of Caligari. Suspicion circulates, and the mystery advances haltingly with the discovery of a copycat killer and a decoy Cesare, until, in the fifth act, Francis chases Caligari to his refuge at the asylum. In a twist ending, Wiene reveals that our narrator, Francis, is himself a patient at the institution, where the director—Caligari—treats him for advanced delusions.
What distinguishes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from contemporaneous films is its groundbreaking visual and narrative style. In order to conserve limited power, the lighting is often stark and minimal, casting deep, long shadows against a painted set. The set design itself was sharp and angular, mimicking the distorted psyche of the characters more than mirroring real architectural conventions, and the effect is unsettling: twisted corridors, slanted windows, and spiked skylines darken every flat, static shot. As one of the earliest horror movies, the influence of Gothic literature is apparent, albeit updated with Dostoyevskian themes, and the actors’ heavy black make-up and histrionic acting style further the atmosphere of despair and doom.
The film has since been identified as one of the touchstones of the German Expressionist movement, a cinematic moment characterized by the mirroring of psychological realities and mise-en-scène. The chaotic inner landscape of Alan is projected onto the physical space he occupies, and the narrative progression is troubled by the character’s own opaque recollection. Uncertainty and limited perception become key narrative devices that inform the manipulation of formal elements onscreen; whether Caligari or Alan is truly mad misses the essential question of whether reality can be seen and interpreted as such.
But this dethroning of reason should be understood within its historical context. Siegfried Kracauer, in his seminal text From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, explores how the nascent distrust of authority in the immediate postwar period manifests itself in Caligari :
As Janowitz indicates, he and Carl Mayer [the writers] half-intentionally stigmatized the omnipotence of a state authority manifesting itself in universal conscription and declarations of war. The German war government seemed to the authors the prototype of such voracious authority. Subjects of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, they were in a better position than most citizens of the Reich to penetrate the fatal tendencies inherent in the German system. The character of Caligari embodies these tendencies; he stands for an unlimited authority that idolizes power as such, and, to satisfy its lust for domination, ruthlessly violates all human rights and values. Functioning as a mere instrument, Cesare is not so much a guilty murderer as Caligari’s innocent victim. This is how the authors themselves understood him. According to the pacifist-minded Janowitz, they had created Cesare with the dim design of portraying the common man who, under the pressure of compulsory military service, is drilled to kill and to be killed. The revolutionary meaning of the story reveals itself unmistakably at the end, with the disclosure of the psychiatrist as Caligari: reason overpowers unreasonable power, insane authority is symbolically abolished.2
Kracauer goes on to explain, however, that Wiene’s ending to the film—where Francis is revealed as the true raving madman—reverses the subversion of the original script, much to the chagrin of the writers; revolutionary critique is turned into the hallucinatory vision of the insane, dismissing the narrative’s potential to process wartime mistreatment in favor of a neater ending at the behest of commercial conventions.
As a member of the Frankfurt School and a pioneer in film criticism, Kracauer interested himself in the way that ideology—invisibly and unwittingly—permeated even the most innocuous of commercial films, revealing the governing principles of a society in the process of masking them. Performing a symptomatic reading of mass culture therefore became the function of the critic; indeed, Walter Benjamin, Kracauer’s contemporary, remarked, “So long as the movie-makers’ capital sets the fashion, as a rule no other revolutionary merit can be accredited to today’s film than the promotion of a revolutionary criticism of traditional concepts of art.”3 Recall that in 1920, the formal conventions of cinema were hardly established, and Hollywood’s long-lasting cultural hegemony was only its infancy: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, along with German Expressionism more broadly, represents a renegotiation of realism’s terms as an aesthetic, where distraction and distortion become inducements to interrogate mass cultural modes of representation as the very sites of ideology’s undoing. Cinema’s potential to betray the disorder of society on a mass scale—because it can so entertain—burdens the medium with radical potential: “In the streets of Berlin one is not seldom struck by the momentary insight that one day all this will suddenly burst apart. The entertainment to which the general public throngs ought to produce the same effect.”4
Other films in the Bentson Mediatheque testify to this same unsettling of realism pioneered by the German Expressionists. Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse (1922) makes a similar pitch: here, another doctor uses his powers of disguise and mind control to commit crimes, his own insanity cloaked by his medical authority. Likewise, in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, an eerie visual style compliments a parable of a monster whose threat is mistaken for the plague. Murnau would go on to direct The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926), the former of which explores the psychological dissent of a doorman fired from his job and the latter of which retells the classic tale of a man who makes a deal with the devil. But when Fritz Lang’s triumph, Metropolis, was released in 1927, the visual style and thematic momentum of German Expressionism was already on the way out.
By the late 1920s, times had changed. Hollywood’s burgeoning production called for expansion, and economic crisis prevailed over vulnerable studios like UFA, who had championed competitive, high-budget films like Metropolis. In entering into gag contracts with American studios, Weimar cinema experienced a period of brain drain as stars and directors expatriated to Hollywood. Worse still, elements of fascism had begun to infiltrate the Republic. The Nazis had taken power by 1933, rallying behind National Socialism as a cure-all for the postwar malaise. That Hitler himself was made in the trenches belies a larger desire for reborn military prowess, one whose sense of order and conformity assuaged anxieties about weakened borders, international humiliation, and the infiltration of the nation by outsider enemies. Simmering resentments—antisemitism, anti-Marxism, anti-capitalism—resulted in a virtual blackout on German cinema: Wiene, Murnau, and Lang, among others, all immigrated to the US.
What Kracauer identified in the German Expressionists was a deep sense of alienation, poverty, and weakness; the psychological void created by World War I precipitated a concomitant craving for clarity, authority, and rationality. When the Nazis began manufacturing propaganda at a mass scale, clear contrasts emerged between their style and the Weimar cinema that they’d inherited:
The Nazi film propagandists practice leftist montage technique in reverse order: they did not try to elicit reality from a meaningless arrangement of shots, but nipped in the bud any real meaning their candid-camera work might convey. Nothing was neglected in camouflaging this procedure and in bolstering the impression that, through unfaked newsreel material, reality itself was moving across the screen. All Nazi war films include shots and scenes that, from a merely photographic standpoint, are quite undesirable; Nazi propaganda, however, retained them, because they testified to the authenticity of the film as a whole and thereby supported confusion of veracity and truth. For the same reason, the Nazis speeded the release of their newsreels, at least in Germany, reducing to a minimum the time interval between war events and their appearance on the screen. Owing to such speed, audiences involuntarily transferred the impressions they received from reality itself to the newsreels, which, like parasites, fed on the real-life character of the events they reflected.5
In other words, Nazi propaganda mobilized the industry by rejecting the subjective cinematography and mise-en-scène of expressionism in favor of a more unmuddied realism, convincing for its apparent lack of distortion. The newsreels amounted to an attempt at a rational organization of space wherein individual reality is subsumed by a totalizing sense of direction, an order wrought by conformity—National Socialism.
Kracauer’s observation that the streets of Berlin may one day burst apart seems prophetic in light of World War II. The core pathology of fascism—the cultural sickness that perversely craved authority, discipline, and racism in the name of an orderly state—is not a deviation from modernity, but a consequence of it. Consider the sociological perspective of Zygmunt Bauman on the Holocaust:
The unspoken terror permeating out collective memory of the Holocaust (and more than contingently related to the overwhelming desire not to look the memory in its face) is the gnawing suspicion that the Holocaust could be more than an aberration, more than a deviation from an otherwise straight path of progress, more than a cancerous growth on the otherwise healthy body of the civilized society; that, in short, the Holocaust was not an antithesis of modern civilization of everything (or so we like to think) it stands for. We suspect (even if we refuse to admit it) that the Holocaust could merely have uncovered another face of the same modern society whose other, more familiar, face we so admire. And that the two faces are perfectly comfortably attached to the same body. What we perhaps fear most, is that each of the two faces can no more exist without the other than can the two sides of a coin.6
This duplicity is at the heart of cinema—our modern medium—and time and time again, calls for resolution foil potential for revolution. Our own death is unimaginable.
1 Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 208.
2 Kracauer, Siegfried, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966, p. 64.
3 Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production,” In: Illuminations (Ed. Hannah Arendt), New York: Schocken Books, 1969. p. 12.
4 Kracauer, Siegfried. “Cult of Distraction: On Berlin’s Picture Palaces.” New German Critique, No. 40 (Winter, 1987), p. 95.
5 Caligari, p. 297.
6 Bauman, Zygmunt, Modernity and the Holocaust. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989, p. 8.