The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Weine, 1920) is one of the first German Expressionist films. It follows Dr Caligari, who controls a somnambulist, i.e., a sleepwalker, named Cesare, which soon leads to the question, ‘Is Dr Caligari making Cesare commit murder?’ The plot is anything but straightforward and objective reality is not the central concern of the film. Instead, the props, the lighting and the various convoluted sets reflect the themes of madness and the uncanny. This approach not only formed the basis of this film but also of the entire expressionist movement. The film emphasises the moral and social realities of its time and has been interpreted as an allegory in various ways. This sequence analysis focusses on the timestamp 18:15-18:51, on Cesare’s rare moment of consciousness and what it might point to on a socio-political level.
John D Barlow, in his book German Expressionist Film, argues that Dr Caligari stands in for the tyrannical power in Germany while Cesare represents the “common man of unconditional obedience” (32). There are scores of other interpretations in a similar vein, where Caligari stands for authority and Cesare stands for the vessel made to do the state’s bidding. The sequence 18:15-18:51 acts as a brief break from this narrative. The viewer gets to see Cesare as a conscious being, not just as an object defined by the acts he is made to perform. As the vignette brings us into close proximity with his face, there is a feeling of horror communicated to the viewer. The dark raccoon eyes on a stark white face stare, alive with self-consciousness. His eyebrows rise to widen his eyes even more (18:48). By being on a plane of uncertainty, and hence horror, with regards to self-consciousness, the subject Cesare experiences a sliver of possibility of an existence outside his master’s control. The absolute dread of being conscious but without resolved identity is the first step towards standing for being more than a puppet. Cesare’s submission to Caligari, the symbol for incessant political and economic repression, is fragmented by a single sequence where an alternate reality is imaginable.
After 18:51, Cesar moves on to intensely morbid things like telling a man he’ll die by dawn, yet his face doesn’t betray any emotion of the same intensity as 18:44-18:49. The vignette sets in and focuses on him at 45:33 as well, when he decides not to kill the girl, but his earlier look isn’t matched in its intensity there either. Therefore, the first moment of Cesare’s consciousness acts as a window that hints at the possibility of a subjective existence, both his own and that of the people of Germany in the 20s. In this manner, this sequence adds to the larger subversive nature of the film. It shows the prospect of the masses having moments of consciousness, even in their blind following of the master. Cesare’s moment of subjectivity is a reminder to the viewer to exercise their own when socio-political forces seek to reduce the masses to non-agential somnambulists.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Robert Weine. Decla Film, 1920. YouTube.
Barlow, John D. German Expressionist Film. Twayne, 1982.
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