March 23, 1921 [Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari/The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari]

At last: Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari opens, as it were, in the United States. Self-consciously “expressionistic”--and I was going to apply some clever negatives here; but seeing those two ideas next to one another--self-consciousness and expressionism—dissuades me from insulting this movie. For without the Nietzschean ecstasy, the Apollonian cry of intoxicated disintegration, self-consciousness is a merely tactile thing, fit only for guiding the hand along life’s surfaces without recognizing the grimacing eruptions that mark expressionism’s sharp-edged, shadowed progress from deep inside to the world we suddenly make. And so, despite all its eyeball-rolling, stilted silliness, Wiene’s picture struck me deeply.

And it isn’t simply Corad Veidt’s Cesare, the inkwell somnambulist (although he is a spidery marvel, a crippled dancer doomed to keep moving), nor Werner Krauss’ Caligari (despite the cracked-saucer glare of his eyes, his full-to-bursting features, like a glutted tick).

It’s the sets. They have obviously been designed to evoke expressionist paintings—which they do with mad conviction, tilting in Freudian architecture, their slopes a leer or a swoon. The characters walk in those paintings like the woman behind the yellow wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story, trapped like a Poe victim, buried alive. This is a spirit-world as a nightmare, in which too many figures have the wide eyes of Goya’s ghouls and witches and helpless victims, where white-clad figures emerge from the woods to tell an old story, so old it makes no sense, unless you leave it alone, and let it be itself.

And what is the story, then, this awkward mechanism? It is steeped in murder and inevitable loss, a talking-cure without catharsis--aside from the awakening of the somnambulist, only to descend into gloom, through churchyard gates in the darkening night. Again, it is a dream from which one cannot escape--and in which one pursues a fiend that reveals itself to be, of course, the self. On this murky plot Wiene hangs his images, the silhouettes, the pale hands, the town a mountain of triangles, the postures all tortured, the somnambulist’s “bed” like the chimney sweep’s “coffin of black” in William Blake.

I had been looking forward to this film, but now I’m not so sure. As stylized and strange as it is, as off-putting in its aspirations, I was drawn in by the individual images, as though presented with a string of muddy pearls but unable to see the whole. My eyes could fix themselves on but one of these globes at a time, cloudy--then growing translucent, until I thought I saw Something in each, and each worse than the previous. Would Gilman and Poe be--should I write “happy”?--to see their ecstatic fears as moving images? And more to the point: Would Munch, or van Gogh, or Kirchner? Like their paintings, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is almost beautiful while in its presence--but afterwards, in one’s memory, almost horrible.

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