Art exists within context. Every piece of art is created within a specific period and the mind of the artist is, if not a product of that time, at the very least a response to it. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is no exception.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is German. It’s at the end of World War I Germany. Germany is neighbors with Austria and at the time there was a renown Austrian neurologist, Dr. Sigmund Freud. To say that questions of murder, of the power of the human mind, of how easily its wills and tendencies can be subverted, to say those questions were on the German mind at the time would probably be an understatement.
To understand the human mind is to ask the fundamental question of what is human. What is it that makes someone human? How do we know that our experiences are real? How do we deal with experiences that may be unique but at the same time are horrible and fit no pre-existing pattern? We have no context for such things, as the world had no context for the horrors of World War I when it happened.
Those questions lay at the heart of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The movie starts with a man sitting in a park bench, which we later find is the garden of an insane asylum. He talks about how there are spirits everywhere. So, our first impression is that it’s a ghost story. The green writing of the title cards further this impression.
While that may be our first impression, one clearly intended by Robert Wiene (the director), it’s wrong and he knows it. Instead Wiene takes us deep into the recesses of the human mind. The ghosts are what we bring to the world; they are our projections, projections of our subconsciousness.
And now we get to the context in which I watched The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I am not a German in 1920. I have not been in a war. I haven’t had my country invaded and the economy of my country hasn’t been ground to dust. And the closest I get to Sigmund Freud is the writings of his protege Carl Jung and however much Freud affected the way I imagine notions of self.
So, when I watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I bring to it the contemporary world. I see the Wiene’s influences on the works of Wes Anderson, from the sets that are clearly unrealistic, to the timing of shots, camera angles, and at times, even the music.
I also bring to it Christopher Nolan’s Inception, which also asks questions of mind and subconscious. In Inception we have the very real possibility that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is in fact trapped in his own mind. But, the reality isn’t that the character is in Nolan’s mind; it’s us, the audience are in Nolan’s mind. Movies access our minds in a way most reality doesn’t. Some psychologists say when we watch movies we enter a sort of dream state. So, when we watch Inception, we are in Nolan’s dream.
At the heart of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a Somnambulist, which is a sleep-walker. Dr. Caligari uses this Somnambulist to test his psychological theories, to explore the human mind. He wants to see if he can control the sleep-walker, getting him to do things that the sleep-walker wouldn’t otherwise do.
Wiene doesn’t end there, though. The sets, which originally look like poorly constructed theatre pieces are in fact gateways for us into what is clearly a distorted reality. The curving forms bring to mind the surrealists of that era, perhaps even as a precursor to that surrealism.
Perhaps surrealism is the minds natural reaction to the horrors of World War I. Perhaps the realities were simply too gnarly to consciously grapple with. Most people I talk to who have been to war won’t talk about it. The solders who do talk about it are often plagued by what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, but just after WWI, it was just called shell-shock.
The constant bombardment of unnatural sounds and sights, of explosions and ruined human forms, of friends always dying, of hope ripped from our tenuous grasp day after day in what could easily be called an unending nightmare… How are we supposed to handle that?
As an artist, I live in that world. I wander around and look at it. I let myself feel the depths of human depravity and I examine both it and my reaction to it. I also feel the heights of joy, transcending what can be communicated through words. That’s my plight. I can’t allow myself to be shielded by the lies of society that tell us everything man has made will shelter us from the immutable reality of entropy. That is also Miene’s world. He too had to stare at the blazing sun without blinking and make inquiries into his own soul, and the soul of his people, post-WWI Germany. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the result.
As with all great art, it is timeless. It leaves us with as many questions as it does answers. Ultimately, that is the human experience. How do we deal with ambiguity? We have cabinets we stick things in compartmentalizing reality so we can do what we need to do. We hide the radical truths from ourselves. If we accept that axiom, we enter into madness. We enter into The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.