Friday, March 19, 2010

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

My friend Sharon Packer, M.D., a clinical psychiatrist, asked me a while back if the name of my blog was in reference to the German Expressionist film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari". No, I answered, it refers to a cabinet of curiosity. Well, her curiosity was attuned to psychiatry and the movies, and she now has 3 books under her belt, one of which was chosen as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title:
  • Dreams in Myth, Medicine, and Movies (Praeger, 2002) The author describes how surrealist artists purposely applied Freudian dream theories to their art to make the public aware of modern ideas about dreams.
  • Movies and the Modern Psyche (Praeger, 2007) She discusses how trends in psychological treatment, such as talk therapy and medicines like Thorazine and antidepressants, are represented in film and how these representations influenced psychological practice.
  • Superheroes and Superegos: Analyzing the Minds Behind the Masks (Praeger, 2009) In the first book about superheroes written by a psychiatrist in over 50 years, Packer invokes biological psychiatry to discuss such concepts as "body dysmorphic disorder," as well as Jungian concepts of the shadow self that explain the appeal of the masked hero and the secret identity.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is discussed in all 3 of the books, and can be watched here. Caligari is an asylum director turned carnival hypnotist, who compels his somnambulist - an inmate at the asylum - to murder. The staff realize that Caligari is himself insane and have him arrested. The story is told by one man to another and it is not revealed until the end of the film that the storyteller is the resident of a mental institution, which undermines the tale in which he plays a large part.

Siegfried Kracauer makes the point in his book From Caligari to Hitler that Caligari is the prototype of the authoritarian ruler - himself insane - who forced others to commit equally insane acts, eerily suggestive of the events that would take place 25 years later in Nazi Germany. "Caligari's continuing success suggests that people are still perturbed by the possibility of losing control during dream and sleep, and that people share a near universal fear of committing criminal acts while unconscious, and that people harbor a lingering fear of archvillain authority figures who impose themselves on others," writes Packer (2002). "Essentially, this 1919 classic is still capable of tapping into our deepest concerns about social control and personal responsibility." Some critics saw Caligari as Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and biographers confirm that it was no accident that the film's screenwriters focused on an evil psychiatrist who turned out to be a sideshow charlatan and an asylum inmate: Alfred Janowitz hated the psychiatrist who alleged that he faked battle fatigue during the war and Carl Meyer was embittered because he lost a brother to battle and lost his father to suicide while still a youth.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is so well-known that it is often assumed to be the first great film ever made, the foremost example of German Expressionism, the first horror movie, or the first depiction on film of an evil psychiatrist, although none of those superlatives is quite true. But as one of the most memorable films in its genre, Caligari has affected viewers and makers of movies. Film noir owes its origins to German Expressionist film and Batman's creator has credited it with inspiration. Packer (2009) writes, "...Batman's aesthetic was directly influenced by the harsh angles and dark shadows and mean streets of German Expressionism." Director Tim Burton evoked it in the angular sets of his Batman movies, and also in his film Beetle Juice. The character "Max Schreck" in Batman Returns was in homage given the same name as the actor who starred in Nosferatu, another example of the genre. Packer points out that a dotted line can be drawn between Caligari and Hannibal the Cannibal. And Caligari's crooked streets, jarring angles, and mismatched rooftops have endured in contemporary set design and in illustrated children's books, including those by Dr. Seuss.

Of the scenery, Packer writes (2007), "Everything in Caligari is set at an angle, and a deliberately disorienting angle at that. One need not understand a single word of the silent film script to sense the uncanniness of Caligari's madhouse or of the carnival. Even the opening garden scene, where two benign-looking men sit side by side talking about the story to follow, instills a sense of the uncanny. Once the film is over, and once we learn that these men are inmates in the asylum behind the garden, we realize that they themselves are mad, and that their recollections of the events may have taken place in their imaginations only. This ambiguity makes us walk away with an even greater sense of uncanniness, wondering if our own perceptions are as distorted as the intersecting angles on the famous Expressionist film set."

By the way, Hitler suppressed the genre and condemned all Expressionist art as decadent.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Chris,

    Thanks so much for posting this! It's so nice to see stills from Caligari and to be reminded of German Expressionism. It's remarkable what was accomplished aesthetically in such a short time, and how much this short-lived genre morphed and mutated and lived so many more lives over time.


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