Monday, June 17, 2024

First Contact: The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari

Dreams within dreams within dreams...

There is something invigorating, and more than a little peculiar, in watching early films. This far into the 21st century, moving images no longer awe us, as we can pull them up on these glimmering little boxes we keep in our pockets. We see them on billboards. They are what make those ubiquitous black mirrors hold some color. It makes us forget that at one point in human history the moving image was something shocking, groundbreaking, something that broke assumptions about the world. This first really occurred to me when I watched A Trip to the Moon, the great science fiction film by Georges Méliès, and then again, with more force, in Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, the great Weimar-era documentary directed by Walter Ruttman, that marveled in the sheer power of editing and juxtaposition to demonstrate the vastness, the richness, and the crushing inequality that was 1920s Berlin. It is with that sense in mind that I watched another great classic of Weimar cinema for this project, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Meyer.

What really struck me right off the bat was the stark contrast of the actors, who are realistically dressed and otherwise would belong in the great city of Berlin, who walk about a clearly manufactured, cubist town that looks like something out of a very odd dream. It made me look at the films I watch today, from any era, that all seek to immerse you in a setting, in an environment. Even the most CGI-laden superhero movie strives to have its effects feel real, even as they are patently unreal (and blur the line between animation and live action in the process). Likewise, we mock films with bad CGI relentlessly, and are jarred by films from the ’90s and ’00s with CGI that strives for verisimilitude but simply did not have the means to achieve it (it is that long fight for verisimilitude in face of the constraints of technology for which George Lucas has edited the Star Wars movies so often, as technology keeps being invented that allows him to realize his dream of the ’70s—there are many questions to be raised about this, but as an artist I can relate to the urge if not the action). Here, however, you see early film’s clear debt to theater, with cutouts that look like the backgrounds of a community theater production. This has the effect of making the entire viewing experience deeply jarring; it is about the emotion of the element, rather than the emotion of the representation.

This film reminded me of Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics. Firstly, he says that in comics, space separates still images to form a narrative, whereas film uses time to separate still images to form a narrative. From there, he posits a big triangle in which each corner represents a different use of lines: at one point, the line as realistic representation; at another point, the line as expression of meaning; and at the final point, the line as a line itself. The goal of virtually all mainstream cinema is to make you believe something is possible, at least in the confines of the story (as is the logic of speculative fiction generally). In this venerable old film, you see film images, in this case the backgrounds, at McCloud’s second point, where they convey meaning. You are not supposed to seriously believe that, in this world, people could live in a town out of Picasso’s nightmares. You are supposed to internalize the sensation that something is deeply, deeply off in Holstenwall, that things are not fine and dandy. Do the characters see the weird houses? Do they think this is normal? Truly, the question is beside the point.

Now I’m going to spoil a film that is almost a hundred years old: the whole shebang is revealed to be the dream of a man in an insane asylum. In doing so, the film marks its proceedings as not being real even within the minds of its principal characters. This is a film from a time that was coming to realize just how much an image, be it still or moving, can capture or distort reality (there is a spirited argument today among photographers as to whether taking a picture of an unaltered scene is a simple reproduction or an act of creation; after all, people are never just standing still in a crowded subway station!); Berlin: Symphony of a Great City is a masterclass in that regard.

This becomes a matryoshka doll when you take into account the plot of the film; it is a story recounted to another at a bench in a park, and within the dream there is the relationship between the Doctor and Cesare, the latter of whom has an inanimate decoy. You have this Droste effect of meaning, going deeper and deeper into the recesses of a dream, which is itself within the dream in the minds of its creators that realized the film. The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari is from a time when humanity was at a new frontier of the realistic recreation of reality. In short, you had a creation that moves (automata notwithstanding), and that looked like real people (not like the uncanny valleys of the aforementioned automata). Film, by this point, was almost reality by the standards of the day, and this film, like many others, was a reckoning with that fact.

Watching The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari put the entire genre of film in perspective for me, and by extension television, video games, online videos, and frankly the moving image in and of itself. It is remarkable that we have plenty of examples of the birth of an entirely new medium, and you can see the conventions being worked out, the limits of the form being probed, the new frontier being bravely explored. It is perspective in a way that we simply do not have for music or for storytelling, as those are prehistoric. Film, on the other hand, is a medium of modernity, and this film makes that very obvious. It is akin to a fish realizing that it swims in water.

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.