Much has been written about the narrative’s symbolism: Germany’s postwar hunger for a strongman; a damaged culture gone mad. Siegfried Kracauer, in his seminal study of cinema and social history “From Caligari to Hitler,” argues that the evil doctor is an authoritarian autocrat ready to take over sleeping Germany (represented by Cesare). Published just two years after the end of World War II, the book draws a line from the murderous, power-mad Caligari to the real-life madman, Hitler.
That’s great grist for the academic mill, but it’s not what modern viewers remember about “Caligari.” Wiene’s film simply looks like nothing else before or since. If Expressionism provides a visual corollary for the inner workings of the mind, then “Caligari” is a projection of instability, anxiety, and, yes, insanity. This was also the age of Freud, whose “The Interpretation of Dreams,” published at the end of the nineteenth century, proved very popular and influential into the twentieth. “Caligari” exists in a kind of dream state—the doctor’s instrument of destruction, after all, is a sleepwalker—and “Caligari’s” visual compositions suggest a world that could exist only onscreen or within the mind.
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” isn’t the greatest German Expressionist film; that title would probably go to another horror film, 1922’s “Nosferatu,” or to the proto-sci-fi of 1927’s “Metropolis.” But “Caligari” is almost certainly the purest expression of Expressionism on film, and therefore a must-see for any student of horror or cinema in general.
So what does it mean to watch a centenarian film? One is tempted to note that the art form is old. But it’s really not. Film is but an infant compared to literature, dance, theater, painting or sculpture. It has so much further to go. A century is of course longer than the average life span; it is also the blink of an eye. Much has changed for film during that blink, including, most notably, the dawn of sound (that centennial arrives in 2027).
Wiene’s film may be 100, but its otherworldly qualities make it feel more modern than much of today’s fare. Plus, as we’ve seen recently in our own country, authoritarian strongmen are not confined to any nation or era. Horror films have long provided a vessel for societal anxiety, as the ‘70s showed so well. Is there a modern American horror out there now warning of where we’re going or ruing where we’ve been? For now, “Caligari’s” long, dark, painted shadow is still with us. Is it any wonder the film still arouses fear?