A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)


I don't know how many years it's been since I saw this in some university film series or other, but I remember finding it rather silly and quaint. In the meantime it has been carefully restored: The flickering black-and-white images I must have seen have been replaced by smooth digitalized projection and the appropriate color filters, as well as the original hand-painted intertitles, and an appropriately spiky modern score by John Zorn has been added. It's clearly a classic, both of its time and enduring into future times. The film has been endlessly analyzed, most notoriously by Siegfried Kracauer in his 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, in which Kracauer posits that the film reveals post-World War I Germany's subconscious desire for an authoritative leader. In other words, Caligari equals Hitler. Considering that in the film Caligari, as played by Werner Krauss, looks both sinister and absurd, something like an elderly owl in a top hat, I find the argument hard to swallow. But this is one film that will probably never exhaust interpretation. I think it's best just to enjoy it as a tremendously gripping artistic experience.