The, ahem, “mindfuck” movie is more or less a reputable genre these days, having twenty years ago adopted a throne in the highest echelon of the cinematic kingdom, at least in the minds of adolescents and high-school film-major-wannabes all across the land. You know, the kind who just can’t wait to tell you about how Fight Club is a metaphysical tract raging against the dying of the individualist, anti-social light or how The Matrix excavated a new world of possibility and mental-architecture and Laurence Fishburne’s voice is so gravelly and sonorous and important so we need to pay attention to it because Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption. And Stuff.
Nearly without exception, all of these films subscribe to a mantra of flashy revelation masquerading a reality of ultimate accommodation, their prophetic visions conforming to all but the most superficial cinematic norms. Their top-level narratives may be slanted, but the form of these films – the visual language, the actual meat of the perceptual and sensory craft – is almost rudimentarily middlebrow. They contort themselves to the regulations and edicts of mainstream cinema perhaps in a misguided belief that tearing the master’s house down with the master’s tools is anything other than an excuse to have one’s cake and eat it too. These films inspect themselves to ensure that they follow every single social, and more importantly formal, decree about how respectable cinema is dictated to function, exorcising themselves of the tangents and fractured loose-ends that might propose genuine new alternatives of thought and representation. A minor injection of a penis here or a superimposed Brad Pitt there excepted, they are primarily films of formal obsequiousness, their flickers of difference from the norm only falling backwards onto the continuity editing and classical style of the films at large. By and large, they do not break Hollywood’s back stylistically, nor do their formal structures redraw our mental assumptions about the governing scriptures of our minds.
The response might be to defend the films with a back-peddling statement that, in order to appeal to the general populace, such ostensibly transgressive cinema has to superficially conform to the structures with which we organize our lives. Not inherently without merit, this dubious assumption is more often than not a reactionary justification rather than a statement of principle or thought, something to be applied to intellectualize safe and secure movies rather than to investigate more dangerous and provocative ones. This pretentious fast-food post-modernism undergirds the figment of invasive social threat that these films propose to represent. Appreciation of the transgressive is nullified by the transgressive object’s need to curtail itself to appease normative mental structures.
These are films that ask us to see and think anew, and yet their eyes are so blind, their minds so restricted to normative ideas about narrative function and visual representation. They haven’t the slightest idea how to kindle cinema into a weapon for theme rather than simply a vessel to carry meaning along; they are films not because of a cinematic idea about how to convey meaning, but because films are popular and their post-modern pseudo-anarchy can accrue a healthy paycheck on the side. This is a particularly wheedling, ingratiating form of transgression that marries it to utilization of and existence within the status-quo. These are films with the air of invention, a distant rumor of originality that they hammer into the ground and flatten with their on-the-nose imagery and pyrotechnics. They are theoretically radical thoughts engulfed by reactionary, conservative, traditional cinematic form. They wish to be cinematic fugitives, holding the cinematic status quo hostage, but they also rely on the form of their forebears – the form of the very cinema they reject – to request a commuted sentence.
Lo and behold, though, the progenitor of the form, Robert Wiene’s 1920 masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, is a real deal cinematic parasite that latches onto your brain and mutualistically unscrews it wide open for your own benefit. Rather than simply striving for thematic revolution, Wiene’s film aspires to the hallowed and seldom-achieved realm of formal radicalism, inscribing its deconstructed social commentary with the nearly Dadaist flourishes of Hermann Warm’s frighteningly morbid, primordial set design that unsettles the hinges of representational physical structures as a visualization and embodiment of the film’s unfurling of our mental categorizations and normative psychologies.
The bulk of its time afforded to monomaniacal, dictatorial demagogue Caligari (Werner Krauss) and his passive proto-slasher henchman Cesare (Conrad Veidt), Wiene’s serrated anti-narrative doesn’t take up much space and thus obliges the film’s tactile construction – its physical sets and designs – to invoke mutiny against the cinematic status quo. Rather than nullifying the film’s mental discombobulation by displacing it onto narrative, Caligari tasks its visuals with disrupting assumptions altogether. So, while The Matrix trades one reality with another, Caligari corrodes categories with visuals that can’t easily be understood to represent any one reality in particular. Few films that proposition us with new realities, new categories of worldly being, actually rail against and even derail normative ways of categorizing in the first place. The Matrix asks us to accept a new reality, same as the old reality, but Caligari is in the rarefied company that dares us to question the mechanisms by which we question reality in the first place. Caligari, with its nearly non-representational conceptions of ungrounded physical geometry and its endlessly fluid, irreconcilable, fractured sense of reality, opens the door for not only new thoughts but new ways of confronting the thought-process.
The most important weapon of ours for accomplishing this task of reconfiguring our minds? Our eyes, our capacity to look, to intake a screen rather than relinquish ourselves to it and treat it as an anonymous, normative, objective image sans perspective or comment as we do with most films, typically resulting in a single-minded emphasis on the narrative, which is usually the top, and most superficial, layer of any film. Caligari is one of the foremost examples of the visual image as a self-questioning consciousness, a film that not only interrogates whether its narrative is “real” or not but cross-examines its own form and thereby questions ideas of how representation or reality occurs in the first place.
And questions how characterization occurs, with the mettle of Cesare tested by the film in almost exclusively embodied ways – character analysis is rejected for character physicality – as Cesare’s place in the world is teased out perceptually in the frame, rather than within a narrative appended to the frame. Again, unlike The Matrix, Caligari is a film that dares us to actually open our eyes; if Griffith wrote history with lightning, then Wiene scribes the dialectics of the physical and the mental with lacerating gunpowder, lashing out with sharp-tongued imagery all over the screen as he engulfs the film in an incisive, hostile atmosphere that threatens our eyes and colonizes our minds with slantwise sights that reflect distorted perspectives of our own selves.
Even the two-years-later Nosferatu, more famous in many circles, is more reticent to attack reality or the social status quo. That film’s surfeit of diabolical imagery masks socially conservative concerns, or at least manipulations of racial and sexual traditionalism as an outlet for its own midnight frights. Caligari, in contrast, mirrors transgressive, rebellious form with socially-inquisitive content in a plea for new mechanisms of visual representation as well as a cry for derailing the gendered and heteronormative status quo. Cesare himself, a predominantly feminine figure of a slender, stiletto-like frame, is pastel-white and frail as a design choice, accentuated by Veidt’s cherub-like face and inward-facing features scrunched into the frame. Wiene’s framing choices – swallowing Cesare while the film seems to render itself ajar for the controlling, brutishly masculine Caligari to step through – place Cesare, Caligari’s object rather than a subject of his own, under visual and social duress. Even when Cesare stretches outward, it feels like he is threatened by the world around him, engaged in a dialectic for not only agency and volition but physical space in the world itself.
Not only an act of visual transmogrification but the progenitor of cinematic camp, this film is screw-loose and open-lipped in its habit of disavowing the norms of expected social structures. Flowing from the subterranean to the surface in Caligari is not only a strain of heated disagreement with the limits of visual cinema but a few flash-bang grenades to be lobbed in the general vicinity of the social status quo. Cesare himself becomes less a totem representing the “other” but a physically quavering embodiment of the Other’s implicit physical and mental resistance to the expectations of dominant society; his performance in the previous year’s Different from the Others, an explicit sermon for progressive treatment of homosexuals and outsiders in society, did not go unnoticed by Wiene. Within Caligari, “queer” becomes not only an adjective for a specific subculture but a drive to distort and uproot the perspectives of normative life.
The repercussion of such embodied characterization is that the film is ultimately equivocal more than declamatory, primarily centrifugal in its meaning much like Cesare is centrifugal and never centered or safe in his existence and physicality. The answers we seek are not given to us but resist complacency; they dance around the frame in an entangled web of representation and character identification. If Cesare, the somnambulist who doesn’t fit in with these people, is the “other”, what does it suggest that the fractal, bespoke world that doesn’t exist on the same plane as the squishy humans eventually begins to resemble Cesare himself? Liberation and acquiescence intertwine when Veidt’s angular frame extrapolates outward to ratify and mimic the malformed, equally angular set design. Suddenly, Cesare is the most naturally fitting and normative humanoid object in the frame, like a blossoming icon relinquished from the mad doctor’s control and allowed to become one with the world around him. Finally, it is he who exists within this world, while the other humans are sequestered away at a remove from it.
Or, perhaps, Cesare is merely submitting to a different plane, with the carnival barking Caligari asserting hegemony over the landscape itself. In one of his earliest scenes, Cesare confronts the audience – staring at us – in an open casket, the walls around him denouncing his freedom even with the casket opened. Even when he is half-out of a coffin, his empty head-space theoretically signaling freedom is dwarfed by men who bend over him, enervating him of any newfound agency or volition. As Cesare sediments into the physical space around him later in the film, it may merely be a new kind of pseudo-liberation, providing Cesare a fictitious freedom that only conscripts him more by forcing him to finagle himself, visually, to adopt the perspective of the set itself. While the people become subjects as they stride past the background, he may be doomed to exist as a part of it.
Famed film theorist Siegfried Kracauer, possibly with a vendetta against the film, intimated that this serpentine double-back in the ending was the “instinctual submission” of the German people to the very authoritarian order and status quo that the film, with its non-moralizing emphasis on difference and queerness, nominally sabotages. Yet the serrated aesthetic of the nominal dream world, in an unstated bout of surreptitious invasion, retains imperious, reptilian control over the frame even throughout these conclusions. That the aesthetic for the objective reality and the subjective mind are identical only kindles these nominal objective realities into psychological-bullet-riddled tantrums fraught with neurosis, leaving us unsure of anything except our ability to rely on the physical and mental image to pervert and question social reality. The mental architecture of the mind, and the objectivity-seeking, self-legitimizing drive of the represented image, is torn asunder by a film that is actively questioning itself not with a defusing exclamation of epiphany a la Fight Club but with a genuine desire to riddle itself with holes and perforate its own mind with agitated, wicked glee. Rather than a wishy-washy submission, the finale is the linchpin of a film teasing out its own place in the world, a film as a question mark rather than a film with questions and follow-up answers ready to demonstrate its legitimacy at any cost. Unlike most films, Caligari is not shy about contradicting itself.
Even in its ostensibly back-peddling finale, the film stabs itself with the clandestine ice-pick of its set-design, pirouetting around order and ultimately engaging in a war-on-all-fronts with the ice grip of the status quo. Caligari is a true renegade. Ninety-six years on, the temptation to afford lenience to Caligari for time passed and advances added to the cinematic lexicon in the ensuing years is present only in the abstract, like an excuse we are supposed to afford the film rather than something the film actually requires. Actually watching the film in the flesh, Caligari is disarmingly liberated from modern cinematic acquiescence, not dated on the path to the modern era so much as existent on another plane that derails our teleological assumptions about cinematic progress altogether. Film is not sacrosanct here, nor is society; both are straws to be grasped at with venomous, assaultive hands and bent until their innards, the compositions and mental faculties that structure the medium and society itself, are putty in Caligari’s hands.