Art Imitating Life? a Film Analysis of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Art Imitating Life? In his assessment of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, (1920), Noel Burch describes the film as a play on “carefully contrived ambiguity,” (Burch, 174). The spectator of the film, the audience is both drawn in as a participant, a “motionless voyager” (Bordwell, 96, quoting Burch) forced to imagine their own dialogue, action, and expression, and then all at once, harkened back to severe reality with contrived moments.

This play between audience immersion and expulsion from the film’s environment characterizes Director Robert Wiene’s simultaneous acceptance and rejection of what we would call institutional mode of representation (IMR). In this essay I will discuss IMR and key moments in film where departure from it is obvious, focusing my attention to moments of the film where the style breaks from a true representation of reality in order of increasing subtlety.

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While doing so, I will discuss Burch’s opposition approach to film style and my own reaction to how these breaks from the IMR style reveal the intention of audience involvement rather than simple narrative consumption. First, and most obviously, an audience member cannot help but notice the manufactured set. This is first noticed in Francis’ flashback to his hometown, Holstenwall (0:03:14). Especially when contrasted to the realistic setting of the garden, where Francis begins his conversation with a friend as his “fiancee” walks past.

It also cues the audience, with its disjointed lines, flat, painted backdrop, and maze-like stairs that perhaps something is not quite right in this memory; the ambiguity of which Burch took notice is clearly present. As such, the audience is engaged as a participant in the film—as soon as irregularities are obvious, they are piqued to begin investigating the film rather than simply observe it.

Because Burch opposes the IMR (the reflection of a bourgeois desire to mechanize reality as a means to immortality) he applauds this “precocious” method, though primitive to some analysts, as a split from the desire to represent live as it is, but rather as it is perceived (Burch, 172). Dr. Caligari, in doing so, serves not only to create an alternate reality, but an alternate account of reality, a distinct epistemology/ontology. We see a similar break with IMR later in the film, in the trips back and forth from the foyer of the insane asylum to Dr.

Caligari’s office and to Francis’ cell. The cell and Caligari’s office have the painted, contrived background used throughout the film, whereas the public space in the asylum uses a realistic setting with natural symmetry and depth of field (beginning 1:06:50). Second, and more subtly, the film breaks with the institutional mode of representation when the audience is treated as a motionless, fixed point, around which the drama revolves.

For example, when Francis is told that Alan has been killed and moves toward the camera (23:39) and the messenger retreats, become part of the scenery (24:40) all of the camera’s attention is given to the relationship between the audience and Francis—our complicity in his despair becomes the focus of the film, not his despair alone. This clearly, must be a break from the IMR—why would Francis move away from the person who wishes to comfort him? To be alone with the audience. Bordwell describes the effort to make character psychological central to the film a feature of IMR (p. 6) but any move that suggests the narrative world is not an inaccessible vacuum is a break from it. I suggest that this moment—Francis’ grief—constitutes a break from IMR. Finally, by nature of its silent media, the audience is already prompted to construct much of the dialogue itself, but there are moments in the film where the viewer is dying to know what the characters are saying and Wiene denies them. For example, when Dr. Caligari is describing the somnambulist to his audience (14:55-15:35), when the police question the copycat attempted murderer (32:08-32:40), as Jane explains her abduction by Cesare (45:01-45:39), and Dr.

Caligari’s (whom we now know is the director of the asylum, not a crazed somnambulist puppeteer) words to Francis (1:10:30). What could he possibly say to comfort him? Wiene does not give these words, and we the audience members are forced to construct the script ourselves. Unlike the IMR style, which would treat the audience as consumers of narrative—Dr. Caligari, sometimes maddeningly, removes the option of passivity. This point is somewhat related to Bordwell’s point above about IMR—but I will expand on it again.

If the audience is absolutely necessary for the film’s success, the IMR style is not being observed wholesale. In conclusion, we find that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, while in many respects a follower of the IMR style, also represents some denial of this style, or at least a resistance to swallow the entire bitter pill. Ways we see IMR presented is the effort to create an entire fictional reality in which the characters interact. The town scenes, the police station, the fair grounds, Francis’ apartment, the Olsen’s home, Caligari’s shack, etc. ll belong to the same peculiar microcosm. However strange it may appear, the effort to create an alternate reality is inescapable. Second, we see an intense focus on the psychological lives of characters. The use of the close-up throughout the film on each key character reveals the preoccupation with psychological torment. The reality in this film is not the story line, but rather, the character’s reaction to it. Their fear, anxiety, demonism, despair, grief and hysteria are where we identify with the characters, not through the reality of their circumstance.

However, I have noted three ways in which IMR style is clearly not followed in the film. These are the contrived, painted set (particularly its stark juxtaposition with realistic settings), the interaction of the characters with the audience, and the necessity of the audience to construct the dialogue of the film for many key scenes. These factors constitute clear breaks from IMR, a break with which Burch would approve. This film is not a message-in-a-bottle—for it to exist, an audience must be there to interact with it.

As such, it is no wonder Burch found it admirable, given his opposition to the ultimately futile enterprise to accurately represent reality in art.

Works Cited Bordwell, David. On the history of film style. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1997. Print. Burch, Noel. In and out of synch: the awakening of a cine-dreamer. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1991. Print. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Restored Authorized Edition). Dir. Robert Wiene. Perf. Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher. 1921. Kino Video, 2002. Film.

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