Was a time, way back when the world was young and hypercolour walked the earth, that I studied film at University. The course was, not to put too thin a wedge into it, cobbled-together rubbish: the lecturers were minor figures; the practical component seemed created to fit the few pieces of dilapidated equipment available; and the philosophies being touted owed everything to a love of 1970s Australian film and a world that had never heard of Truffaut, or Hitchcock, or, you know, any sort of film theory.
There was one good side, though. While the film analysis was rudimentary, it did, at least, mean that once a week we would gather in a lecture hall and watch movies for seven hours. The lecture hall directly across from the tavern. Just after lunchtime.
Thankfully, amongst the viewings of such “classic” fare as The FJ Holden and Bliss, we were occasionally exposed to some genuinely brilliant examples of the craft. I first saw The Battleship Potemkin in that lecture hall, Birth of a Nation, and Citizen Kane. And The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.
Let’s be honest. Even viewed today, almost 100 years after it premiered, it’s as mad as a bucket of weasels. It’s an experiment of nearly-pure German expressionism. There’s barely a right angle in the whole piece: actors lurch from one stance to another like broken puppets; walls careen away from the vertical with no relation to each other; great blocks of colour stand in for architectural features; the action jumps from point to point with little attention to narrative flow or logic. It’s a fever dream, and unapologetically so, more art installation than what we have come to understand as a traditional filmic narrative.
The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari breaks rules that hadn’t been properly formulated yet. It is a wild, ambitious slice of artistic theory transformed into a medium that wasn’t yet really read for it. I’ve come to love silent films over the years, and I have an especial fondness for German noir films of the 1920s and 1930s– M, Metropolis, Nosferatu, The Golem, Dr Mabuse, The Hands of Orlac… the list is long. But none of them are quite as mad as ‘Caligari’, none have quite the unsettling impact. Nothing is real in ‘Caligari’. Nothing can be trusted. It’s a journey into unnaturalism, into the soul of the unreliable narrator.
The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari had an enormous impact on the way I view film, and the way in which I view the role of the narrator within a work of fiction. Some of the ways in which the film is constructed, and makes plain that construction– as if the artifice itself is part of the story, and essential to the creation of mistrust in that story– have become central to my own storytelling technique (Magrit bears it. Many of my short stories are rife with it: check out Making Two Fists or Murderworld, for example).
It’s deliriously unique, and I love it.